In July 2021 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing internet access as the basic human right, iterating that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. So the question arises: Is the internet truly free, or do we pay for it with the data we consciously or unconsciously share online? Taking on this question requires digging deep into the business models of some of the largest social media platforms.
It is no secret that the largest revenue streams of Google, Facebook (Meta) and Instagram come from advertising, which is specifically designed to target users based on their location, demographic and online behavior. Over a decade, Facebook advertised that the platform was "free and will always be" - a slogan that was quietly removed from the platform in 2019. Soon after, Zuckerberg admitted that the platform needs to review its privacy policies.
In a 2010 interview with the Washington Post, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook would give its users better control of their data by adding more simple privacy features and an easy way to turn off all third-party services. However, Facebook - Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 demonstrated that these promises had failed to come into existence. The investigation showed that Facebook had allowed the third party (Cambridge Analytica) to harvest the data of millions of users, without them being aware of it. More recently, Meta-owned Instagram was fined €405m for violating children's data privacy by facilitating the publication of the child user’s phone number and/or email address as well as by making some child data public.
Data protection legislation makes it clear that using someone's personal information without their knowledge and consent is illegal. Article 7 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) mandates that the consent must be clear, informed, specific, unambiguous and withdrawable. A particularly problematic situation arises if illegally transferred data is later used to profile a large number of users, target them with tailored political ads, and affect their voting decisions as a result.
Why is our personal data so valuable?
In 2017, the Economist published a story titled "the world's most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data". Since then, a great deal of discussion has focused on the reasons for such demand for data and the need to regulate big tech. A study conducted by Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre and Microsoft Research proved that statistical models are able to predict personal details using Facebook Likes alone. Using only a few information points, these models demonstrate high accuracy in determining personal and sensitive details, such as male sexuality 88%, political affiliations 85%, religious beliefs 82%.
Such profiling successfully serves one inherent purpose, to gradually modify users’ behaviors and sell them products, services and narratives that they never intended to buy. Hence, It is no surprise that social media companies view their customers as a source of income, having attributed different values to individual users: for Google you are worth $182, for Facebook $158 and for Amazon the value is as high as $733.
So, how do we make sure that using these ‘seemingly’ free online services does not turn us into digital products? Particularly in an environment where one cannot even check the weather forecast without being chased by ads for raincoats, umbrellas, and sunscreen.