We are the products

If you have been reading the headlines across the “tech world” over the past few weeks, then you are likely all too familiar with the phrases: “Facebook and consumer data.”

The ease with which Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest and exploit Facebook user data is indeed highly disturbing. However, some context and pragmatism are in order. First, Facebook is hardly the only company that develops detailed profiles about consumers and uses them—or allows them to be used—for commercial and political targeting. This has been going on for years, across a multitude of industries. The current scandal merely pulled back the curtain on a common practice that industry doesn’t like to talk about.

Second, the ability of companies to collect, combine, infer, and sell the kind of detailed information that Cambridge Analytica stockpiled has rapidly expanded while Congress has stood idly by and let it happen—if not enabled it. For more than 20 years, many of us who champion consumers have urged Congress to pass a federal law establishing basic privacy rules that all companies must follow, and that all Americans can count on. With each attempt, industry has objected and Congress has retreated, even recently eliminating the federal rules governing broadband privacy.


This is obviously a challenging and controversial topic with no clear solution that will appease everyone.

Personally, it has been interesting to backlash spread towards the large data-centric consumer-facing technology companies. Interesting is perhaps the wrong word, as this is a very serious and real issue with serious consequences if handled incorrectly.

I guess my instinct when scanning the headlines about the “scandals” and “hacks” is quite combative. Having some experience with Facebook’s API, I am not really at all surprised by “what” these powerful platforms can do with my information. In fact, I thought it obvious that as a user of the platform I was effectively signing off my rights to my data. I figured anything I posted online would be available to be sold and monetized by companies.

So that…I am not really that surprised? I translate the same reaction to the dozens of other web services that I use for free – knowing I am giving them my data in return.

BUT…I imagine most internet users have not had the consumer privacy education that I have had. I know my parents, for instance, have no experience with the FB API. How are they supposed to really know what they are signing off on by hitting the create account button? Is it fair to them? Is it fair to the 7 year old making her Facebook account to play Angry Birds with?

I think we are just now tipping off what will be a long discussion about consumer privacy and data security. It will likely go in many directions, but I think the hardest thing will be for these companies who make their users the product – i.e FB who earns revenue by effectively “selling” their customers – to adapt to the market conditions. Will this space be regulated? How regulated? And by who?

I personally like Steve Jobs’ definition of privacy for consumers:

“Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for — in plain English, and repeatedly,” Jobs said.