Reprinted from The Dallas Morning News March 30.
It’s easy to forget how young the Silicon Valley companies that dominate so much of our lives really are. One need be only a freshman in high school to have been born in a time before Facebook existed. And a baby delivered on the day Google was incorporated would turn 20 only this September.
In just the single lifespan of a teenager, those two firms — along with many other competitors and allies — have generated riches and international clout to rival the nation’s grandest commercial enterprises. Ad sales made Google’s parent company the fifth-most-profitable in the U.S. last year, and Facebook’s ads drove it to $10 billion in profits as well, enough to rank 20th among the Fortune 500.
Vast as these companies are, it’s not the dollars involved that reveal how deeply embedded they have become in our lives. Some 1.4 billion people worldwide use Facebook daily. Google conducts as many as 40,000 searches per second.
In addition to greatly enriching the firms, this ubiquity has also created whole new digital economies and marketplaces for countless other companies. For the rest of us, it has provided constant and often extraordinarily helpful services and conveniences.
And it’s all been free of charge. In lieu of payment, the companies ask merely for us to provide a peek into our most private lives and telling habits. We provide real-time information about families, friends, our likes and dislikes, locations, travel, eating, drinking, reading and viewing habits — and much more.
In short, we consent to be not their customer, but their product. They sell to third parties an opportunity to sell us things, to tell us all kinds of stories — true or trivial or just made up — and to influence our behavior as consumers and citizens.
For many, it has seemed a healthy exchange. You keep me in touch with my friends, long-lost cousins and classmates, and I’ll let you have access to everything you want to know in order to sell my attention to your clients.
But the tides are turning. Many have been outraged by revelations that Russians and other have exploited Facebook’s close knowledge of we, the users, to further inflame our public discourse, and how third-parties unscrupulously used users’ personal data without their consent.
In its wake, more of us are second-guessing our relationship with Facebook, and with the countless other firms that trade access to our private lives for their otherwise free services.
Most Americans aren’t ready to cut ties to their social media sources. But the companies would be foolish to ignore this moment of recalibration. The companies, and the users and everyone involved, should commit to auditing these relationships, if they are to remain healthy.
What should happen next?
We need a three-part compact between the Internet titans, users and government:
1. Companies are going to want to use our information — from search histories to friends lists to social media likes and dislikes — to better target the ads they sell to third parties. Fair enough. But they should make it easier for users to opt out and limit what information can be used.
They must enable users to block any firm from providing that information in a way that identifies the user to a third party. When exceptions are required by law, the users should be informed and the companies should insist on a subpoena or warrant.
2. Users should audit privacy settings on each app they use, and take the critical step of reconsidering which apps they sign into through Twitter, Google or Facebook. How well do you really trust the company behind the latest app you installed on your phone?
3. Congress and other governments must demand accountability from Facebook and others and insist on strong firewalls between the identities of the people whose data they use to sell adds and the firms who purchase them.