You signed on to Facebook, voluntarily. You posted information on it freely. You liked other people’s posts and commented on them willingly. You connected with friends and updated your information and activities on Facebook without any coercion, and you were free to stop posting information whenever you wanted. It was your choice to keep your account active. No one from Facebook called or coerced you to sign up for Facebook or to invite other friends to sign up or to post pictures. There was never a threat of services being disconnected.
All these activities involving disclosure of personal data were done voluntarily without any coercion–these were decisions made by rational people who understood that whatever they put out in cyberspace runs the risk of being accessed by others. After all, if you can access limitless information put out by others, they too can acquire stuff you put out. That’s how the internet works– self-policing.
So let’s all accept personal responsibility for putting our information on social media. If we were paying to have your personal data protected we would have a right to demand that our data be safe. But, these services are free and participation in them completely voluntary. So if the data we so freely and willingly put out there gets picked we are to blame–not Facebook or Google.
Let’s face it–there are more than 2 billion people from every corner of the earth who have voluntarily signed up on Facebook, and who have willingly exchanged personal information with their friends and family. These people must derive satisfaction from doing this. They understand the risks of putting this information out there yet they continue to engage actively on social media. Research has validated the notion that this sort of social engagement is key to happiness and personal satisfaction. There are other collateral benefits from social media–there is research, for example, that documents tens of thousands of orphaned and abandoned children finding their families through social sites like Facebook.
So despite the potentials risks, there are great benefits from social media sites like Facebook.
Now contrast this with threatening emails and SMS’s from your Bank mandating you to link your account with information on the Aadhar card or face account closure. Or, calls from your mobile service provider threatening to shut your service unless you link your personal Aadhar information with your mobile number. In this case, you are not giving your information voluntarily but were coerced by the government to provide it to third-party providers. In contrast to your voluntary activities on Facebook, you have no choice but to reveal this information to the government.
Hopefully, you see the difference between the two examples. In one case you made a personal decision to disclose information knowing fully well that there were risks to such disclosure. In the other, you were forced to under threat of punishment. If your information, especially financial data, gets misused by the government or by the many third-party vendors that have access to your Aadhar information you have a right to be upset because you did not sign up for it voluntarily.
The issue, therefore, is who has control over the release of personal information. If it’s you then you should accept responsibility for putting out details about where you are, who you are with, pictures of loved ones etc. Facebook and Google have absolutely no control and therefore no responsibility for your data.
It is safe to assume that the vast majority of people who use free sites like Facebook and Google are not ignorant about common-sense economics; they do understand that there is no free lunch and someone has to pay for developing and maintaining these sites. We are all so addicted to the wonderful communication, connectivity, and search tools that we would raise hell if Facebook or Google asked us to pay for using these services. How much would people be willing to pay to use a tool like Google search that provides instant information that would otherwise take them years to find?
Think about this- if Google charged just a penny for each search its annual revenue would be twice its current revenue. Instead, Google chooses to give people free access to this remarkable search engine. In return, it expects to mine information that people voluntarily provide to target meaningful advertisement. Again, while these advertisements might sometimes be annoying, there is no compulsion to click on them or buy anything. That’s how companies like Google and Facebook make money–through something called targeted marketing. They identify user preferences for goods and services based on their likes and search patterns. So if someone regularly likes dog pictures and videos on Facebook the reasonable assumption is that she is a dog lover and would be receptive to advertisements on discounted dog supplies. I was recently searching for reading glasses, and within minutes of my search, I got coupons from two companies. I saved money, and they made a sale–all through the intelligent use of tools that create efficiencies in the advertising process.
So who pays the billions of dollars it takes to keep sites like Google and Facebook running? The money comes from efficiency. In the pre-Google days, advertisers told their clients that only 10% of advertising worked, but no one knew which 10%. So companies were forced to spend large amounts on advertising using a hit-or-miss shotgun approach. But with targeted campaigns, companies are saving billions of dollars in advertising expenses. And some of these savings go into running Google and Facebook. We should all applaud the efficiency produced by targeted marketing for both buyers and sellers.
Recently, some of Facebook’s data was apparently stolen by another company to target political advertising. In a democracy, there is absolutely nothing wrong with political parties making voters aware of their positions on issues or even targeting like-minded voters. In fact, that is the essence of democracy–informing voters about where a particular candidate stands on issues. Again, there was no threat of bank account closure or termination of service if people didn’t vote a certain way. No ballot boxes were stuffed, and no electronic voting machines tampered. All that was done was the dissemination of information, and there have been shrill cries about the election being influenced and stolen. Cambridge Analytica, the company that allegedly took Facebook data apparently used it on behalf of a political party to “identify the party’s core voters and likely swing voters.” Hardly a crime in a democracy, given that such activities are at the heart of every election strategy–identifying and targeting swing voters. How does that constitute electoral fraud? And as to the efficacy of such targeting, several studies have shown that the benefits of such voter targeting are at best ‘ minimal and marginal.’ Liquor and money have historically been used far more effectively to influence voters in Indian elections than Facebook data.
The fact that Cambridge Analytica stole the data, however, is a crime–as is stealing anything. And, that Facebook allowed this to happen opens up a disturbing question about people’s private data getting into the hands of rogue companies or governments. I think we can all agree that privacy of an individual and information about her personal life should not be compromised. But the danger of that exists more with personal data that resides with the government than with private companies like Facebook. The impact of the Facebook breach of data was brutal on the company’s stock, and its Chairman Mark Zuckerberg personally lost almost $ 2 billion in one day. If a loss of that magnitude does not stir him to tighten up data security at Facebook nothing will. The free market has a very efficient way of correcting problems in the system.
This incident has, unfortunately, brought loud calls for more government regulation–although it is hard to understand what is it that governments are being asked to regulate and how it is that the Indian government could control data that resides in servers outside the country. Asking the government to control data on the internet is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. I am more comfortable letting a private company have my data because I know that they are more likely to protect what is presumably the goose that lays their golden egg, than some government official who has absolutely no skin in the game. Allowing the government to be directly or indirectly in charge of my data is a scary thought because it will undoubtedly lead to its misuse by politicians who don’t face the same market discipline as Facebook. And frankly, I would rather trust the technical expertise at private companies like Google and Facebook to protect my data than a bureaucrat sitting in New Delhi.
No amount of regulation is going to prevent people from using data to sell products, services and even political candidates. But the market discipline of the type imposed on Facebook may. After watching the drubbing Facebook’s stock got, the shareholders of Google will want its management to be extra vigilant about preserving the integrity of its user’s data. And as for us, it is time we accept that we alone are responsible for what we put out on social media. Every Tweet, every Facebook post gets collected and harvested to provide information about our habits and personalities. That’s how those companies make money to pay for the wonderful services we get for free. So if someone steals, your data remember you put it out there voluntarily–unless of course you were coerced by the government to hand it over.
The internet and the millions of useful applications that reside on it have generated an enormous increase in productivity and greatly enhanced our quality of life. The best part is that they have all evolved spontaneously in the free market and without government intervention and burdensome regulations. In fact, their development has been possible because there is no government intervention. Let’s not screw it up by asking for more regulation. The evidence stares us in the face–education, healthcare, banking, transportation are just a few examples of how government regulation can destroy entire industries. Instead, let’s all accept responsibility for the information we post and allow the free market system to iron out the chinks instead of running to the government at every sign of trouble.
Trust me; the government would gladly find a way to control the internet given half a chance. Governments love to get bigger–it gives the politicians and bureaucrats more power and power is their raison d’etre. An Internet Ministry that “ controls” data would be hugely powerful because they can control the message, and by having access to your financial information they will have a limitless hold on your lives.
Is that a price you are willing to pay?
So let’s stop asking for more regulations and instead focus on greater self-responsibility.