This past week saw Facebook under attack after a scandal involving abuse of user data. Suspicion quickly spread to Google, Instagram, Twitter and other “free” social media platforms. Various article have appeared online showing users how to see the data these platforms collected. I’m generally suspicious of the sudden rise of any grass-roots social movement since inevitably the grass turns into corporately funded astroturf. But regardless of who’s behind it this crusade is well-deserved.
Conservatives and libertarians should not shed any tears seeing these social media platforms being beaten down. None have been friendly to our agenda and most have been downright antagonistic, silencing conservatives while promoting left wing content. I have advocated leaving Facebook, quitting the platform in 2012 after I got into a flame war with a former friend over whether the late Helen Thomas was an anti-Semite for saying the “Jews should get the hell out of Palestine.” It turned out she was and so was my friend, and I learned that most relationships one has in life have an expiration date, and trying to extend them is like eating food past its sell-by date: you risk poisoning yourself. Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar empire is built on a huge toxic waste dump of relationships long past their prime. If we really cared about our friends we’d pick up the phone, send a letter or even shoot them an email. Posting a picture on Facebook of your vacation or your kid’s graduation from college is just humble-bragging, each post poisoning the relationship a tad while the likes encourage you to post more, all for the sake of boosting your value to advertisers.
Liberal attempts at saving these social media giants have already begun, with this article from the New York Times suggesting ways for them to change. The problem is that each way laid out in the article won’t work. Turning Twitter into a collective would destroy it as members realized the cost of 140 characters didn’t justify the price shareholders would demand for it. Anyone who has read the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich or seen the movie adaptation The Social Network knows that democratizing or voluntarily breaking up Facebook is an impossible task for its founder who has exercised dictatorial authority over his creation since the beginning and has employed cut-throat means to protect it. A “Do-Over button” would clean out years of relationship detritus, but would also demonetize each user who did so, turning the one who pressed it into a $0 commodity versus their current value based on their years of online activity.
How much activity is that? Visit this link to learn how check out how much data Google has on you. I did and found the search engine has 8gb on me – enough to fill two DVDs. If you want to see something really creepy, check out Google Maps Timeline and see how the company has tracked you like the CIA an al Qaeda terrorist. And the scary part? If you are like me you let them without truly appreciating the potential of the technology to invade your privacy. Clicking on the map I see everywhere I’ve been the past 5 years including trips to Israel, Europe and travel all over the USA. Double clicking on one of those visited American cities I pull up a map where Google tracked me while walking and driving around at an astonishing level of detail. Why?
A visit to Charleston South Carolina several years ago tracked by Google through my cell phone.
In the Surveillance Age we find ourselves in if the data exists it will find its way into the hands of those who want it, be it an illegally-acting government agency or hackers. What has saved us so far from serious damage to our civil liberties and privacy is the lack of tools to make sense of that data, to ask questions and receive useful answers by finding the tiny signal in the vast cacophony of meaningless noise. Those tools are now available and it may already be too late to protect us. Demands to delete the data will only limit the damage since these corporations have backup strategies from the file level all the way up to replicating an entire data center, the data existing in multiple locations worldwide in case any one location becomes “a smoking hole in the ground.” It’s almost impossible to delete your email from a corporate mailing list let alone 8gb of personal data. There is simply no incentive for a company to delete data while the financial incentive remains to hold on to it.
The solutions aren’t simple. We must use anti-trust law to break these companies up – hard to do in a political climate where these companies donate millions to the Democrats and the “Stupid Party” are loath to break up corporations on principle (It may be no coincidence that these companies are reaching out to Trump and the GOP). By splitting up these companies we would fragment our data profile, making it more difficult for anyone to put these pieces together to predict our behavior or track us. Most importantly we need to stop acting like children and take control back from the corporations. Most companies provide means of opting out of data collection: use them. I personally don’t trust these corporations to do that, and look forward to an app that sits between Facebook or Google and your computer or mobile device and feeds these companies bogus data. If you want to really get back at these companies, providing them with a flood of nonsense data would send the signal-to-noise ratio spiraling into the Abyss. Some apps like Tor are a step towards this capability but aren’t there yet. Imagine an app that reports to Google you are walking down Negdsen Untestnii road in Ulan Bator Mongolia instead of hitting your neighborhood Starbucks in South Philly. That data stream will give Google’s algorithms fits – when such an application becomes available.
Ask yourself: Is Twitter worth it? Does using Instagram make you happy? Is Facebook making your life better or worse? All of these applications are free on the surface but we pay for them with our privacy. Privacy is a currency that is easy to lose but hard to gain back – just like Liberty.