The GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) were on Capitol Hill earlier this month facing Congress. The questions asked of them boiled down to, “Do you realize how your services can be used to subvert our democracy? Are you taking this as seriously as your bottom line?” The not so subtle threat behind this is the possibility of government regulation. And Congress wasn’t impressed by who they sent, either. Instead of their CEOs, they all sent lawyers. It seems that maybe they aren’t taking this as seriously as they should. This got me to wondering, “How did we get here?”
When these now giant companies started in the 90s, they were just startups. Amazon’s business plan didn’t show it making a profit for ten years. Facebook was the way college students (only) connected with each other. Google was a new search engine that was only starting to replace Yahoo! as people’s first choice to find things on the internet. And Apple was a niche computer maker with a very small part of the market. Each of these companies worked like crazy to attract users. They focused on serving those users and a big part of that was making a space to meet a particular need and then getting out of the user’s way. In many ways, they were legitimately creating a (largely) free and unfettered online community. You could say and do whatever you wanted. What you saw on Facebook was all the updates of all your friends, no matter how overwhelming. But as the internet grew and mobile computing came along in 2007, this changed.
Those funding these startups began to pressure them to be profitable and go public. Advertising began to be more and more a part of the experience. And, with the overwhelming amount of information that became available, they all began to curate their user experience in some way. And we all welcomed this help sorting through the sea of information that the internet became. But we never evolved our understanding of these companies along with that change. They stopped being simple meeting places and tools. They started to become filters of our online experiences. Again, not bad — just a fact. Instead of using their products, we became the product.
How can we keep the services we like and use everyday without being taken advantage of? I think the key is transparency. I don’t mean that Facebook and Google should publish their algorithms. I do mean that they should explain broadly what their algorithms do. For example, it was sometime after they changed their feed policy before I learned that I was no longer simply seeing an unfiltered list of my Facebook friends’ feeds. Facebook now only shows you some of the feeds of your friends. If you look at your friend’s page itself you will see it all, but they show you only the best and what they think will keep you on Facebook. And they insert promoted content, too. They weren’t transparent about this. They should be.
These companies continue to claim that they should not be responsible for the content published on their platforms as they have no control over what users post. At the same time, they manipulate what their users see without clearly telling them that’s what they are doing. They can’t have it both ways. They need to go back to being completely unfiltered, or be transparent about the way they are curating the user experience. And if they choose neither, Congress is likely to begin regulating them.
In the meantime, what is the average user to do? All this change behind the scenes is frustrating and makes us feel used. Indeed, many say we are being used, that we are the product being sold rather than being the customer. For me the answer is what I call informed convenience. The internet and mobile are such a part of our everyday lives that there is no going back. Short of not having a mobile phone at all or never using the internet, we will encounter these companies and their products. So, we need to become better digital citizens. How do we do that without becoming paralegals in order to understand those Terms of Service we all have to agree to but never read?
Today there are many tools and websites to help you figure out in plain English what the terms of service are for a site or service. Here are three I found on a quick search:
Also, many of these companies have started to provide or use alternative services. Encrypt your computer hard drive and smartphone (both Android and iPhone have this capability). Make sure you know what rights you are giving up by using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use DuckDuckGo for search instead of Google because DuckDuckGo doesn’t track you. Pay for private email instead of using free email that it selling information about you. Buy books at your local bookstore instead from Amazon.
And if you are okay with what all of these companies are doing, don’t do anything differently. I am not trying to tell you what services you should or shouldn’t use. I am suggesting that you decide knowing what you are agreeing to. After doing a little research you may find that you have to give up a little convenience to live closer to the digital life you want to live. That’s okay. And rather than unknowingly being used, you will be practicing informed convenience.
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