In defence of Facebook

In defence of Facebook
    Imagine your neighbourhood grocery store. You go there every week to buy a particular brand of sugar, rice and milk. One day, you go to the store and the store owner just hands you what you buy every day. "You are a regular at the store sir, we know what you need and we'll always have it available."

    You're happy to do business with this store. You feel special and the store's personalised service has you doing more business with them. A year later, the store owner is retiring and handing over the business to his son. He tells his son that you're a regular customer and you buy X, Y and Z brand of sugar, rice and milk every week.

    The store owner's son is more modern. He takes this information, looks at the contents of each box, nutrition value, price etc. The next time you walk into the store, he offers a different brand of each of these items to you, explaining how they're better.

    You realise he's right, but while the milk and rice are cheaper, the sugar is more expensive. After some contemplation, you buy them all, walking away happy that the son has provided even more personalised service.

    Unbeknownst to you, the son had worked up a deal with the sugar manufacturer, that gave him higher margins on that particular brand. He has shrewdly used what he knew about you, to make more profits. Is he wrong? What would he have done if you were experimenting and buying different brands often, just to see what suits you better?

    Whose data is it anyway ?

    Now, a few months have passed and you're sort of friends with the store owner's son. You chat with him about day to day things, even talk about things you buy and why you do so. In these conversations, the son, one day, learns that you’re trying to get in shape. He tells the same to the gym trainer next door. That man, in turn, approaches you on the street with a workout plan, telling you how it would be perfect for you and that he'll give you a discount.


    He says the discount is because you were referred by the grocery store owner next door. Are you offended? Do you feel like your trust has been breached? If you are, you may not give so much information to the store owner next time. However, if you do sign up for the fitness services, you will probably casually thank the store owner next time for hooking you up.

    That's how data works on the Internet. Facebook inserts these little things, called pixels, on almost every website you visit, with the website owner’s permission. So, when you do visit them, Facebook knows you were there and what you did. The next time you're on the News Feed, you see advertisements about products you saw earlier.

    Over time, Facebook starts monitoring what you do on and off the social network. It takes all this information and shares it with its neighbourhood stores, i.e, third parties that advertise through its ad networks. Is that wrong? Certainly not.

    Why then is it Facebook's fault if one of the third parties decide to misuse that data? We're at Cambridge Analytica (CA) now, of course. The British firm that created "psychographic profiles" of users and was apparently instrumental in putting Trump in the US White House.

    A psychographic profile is a profile created based on your behaviour, likes, dislikes and emotions. CA used the data to apparently turn voters in favour of Trump, Modi or any other politician anywhere else, but one could argue that they were prone to be turned anyway. Haven't political campaigns always been about getting voters to vote for the politicians?

    In the Internet-age, we argue that user data belongs to the user. But, how is sharing data any different from talking to strangers and people you meet. Everything you say or do provides information about you. That's why we should always think before we speak, right?

    Are we asking Facebook to not take our data? Sure, it could easily stop doing so. But then it won't be able to show you personalised results, the right posts and more. Remember when social media was confusing, irritating and not addictive? Are you fine going back to that?

    Convenience vs Privacy

    When any browser, app or website takes your data, it is making an implicit promise to not use it nefariously, Facebook included. The terms and conditions that you never read, usually mention, in language that is difficult or too long to comprehend, that your data will be used. Take this paragraph from Facebook's data policy for instance,

    "We receive information about you and your activities on and off Facebook from third-party partners, such as information from a partner when we jointly offer services or from an advertiser about your experiences or interactions with them."

    This is what allows the social network to display ads from MakeMyTrip right after you've browsed tickets on the website. It's also how Facebook shows you the shirt you just bought from Jabong, or the coffee maker you've been fawning over on Amazon.

    When you've seen enough shirts on Jabong, Facebook's intelligent algorithms now know you're interested. So, when another third party advertiser wants to target people buying shirts, Facebook helps them target you by putting ads on your News Feed. Isn't this exactly the same situation as the grocery store owner who told the gym trainer about you? Companies even offer promo codes for "first-time users" signing up through their ads.

    The primary difference here though is that human interactions are slow. It takes people months and even years to learn about each other, but it takes machines days at best. The "pixels" Facebook puts on a website, are cookies that reside on your PC and phone. They're files, a few kilobytes in size, that help the company track your information. The same accounts for Google, Microsoft or any other company tracking you.

    So yes, this improved user-based experience comes with a legally binding contract that is meant to erode away your fundamental right. That contract is called consent.

    And it is a tradable asset on the Internet.

    Remember the mall that you entered to buy those ritzy pumps ignoring a small placard that carried a familiar warning about the building being under constant cctv surveillance? You usually take that as a sign that the mall takes good security measures. However, that was also the moment you gave away your consent to be private.

    The cost for convenience is deanonymization of your data, and you have to determine the value of this trade off.

    Is Facebook the favourite whipping boy?

    In the 21st century, privacy is perhaps the biggest question on everyone's minds. But political experts have always yearned to understand the electorate better. Do we now have a problem because they can do so with scary accuracy?

    That might be true, but it still may not be the answer. At best, this is gerrymandering in the digital age. Instead of redrawing district boundaries, political parties can learn more about you and turn you. Here’s an example of how splitting Telangana from Andhra Pradesh was gerrymandering. The existence of social media and machine learning methods seem to make this easier.

    The central question in all of this is whether you should compromise privacy for convenience. Convenience is basically what's on offer when the biggest tech firms tell you they will give you "personalised" services.

    In return, you will give up information about you that even your best friends do not know. Remember that the next time you’re searching for porn on Google.

    And that's why we care about all this. It's not because of what they do know about us, but how powerful that data makes them. But that still doesn't answer why we suddenly expect a corporation to do business like it's a non profit.

    Corporations are supposed to be responsible when doing business, which Facebook, Google etc. accomplish by establishing Data Policies, Terms and Conditions etc. But what are governments doing? Most governments have been reactionary to private data. Instead of telling Facebook to regulate itself, governments should go ahead and regulate social media already, even if that makes them “big brother”.

    Multiple governments are questioning these companies today, but it's without answers. Is it possible that privacy is a battle we've already lost, so everyone is simply procrastinating? How will you make a privacy law without hurting businesses? How will you police machines?

    Cambridge Analytica is not the first time we've seen a breach of trust. Is this breach not enough to police algorithms? You see, the algorithms that make these decisions for Facebook, Google and every other company are hidden. No one knows how they work, including the engineers who originally created them. That’s just the nature of machine learning algorithms, the creator often doesn’t recognise his/her own code after it’s “learned” a few new things.

    Why can't governments make it so that these algorithms and their behaviour are audited over fixed periods of time? Would that be the solution?

    Or would a crowdsourced identity market place be an answer?