In June 2014, many Facebook users were outraged at the leaked news that Facebook was filtering the kinds of feed people saw in an emotion driven experiment that they conducted. Not too long before that, users were already on edge about the new messenger app that Facebook required users to install.
The messenger app was rumored to give the site access to things like contact books, locations and even photo streams. These recent stories beg the question – what is the real cost users are willing to pay to access free Internet sites?
Jean Sandlin, professor of communication at California Lutheran University, quotes the common adage, “If it’s free, you’re probably the product.”
Sandlin explained that while there are many ethical questions on the subject of collecting data from people, users are allowing access to their personal information every time they skip over the fine print.
“[Users] give Facebook their information… That’s what you’re signing away when you hit that button, ‘Yeah, I agree,’” Sandlin said.
While Facebook has attracted a lot of attention recently in being a big distributor of this kind of information, it is not solely responsible for how much of Internet user’s lives are now public.
Jose Marichal, associate professor of political science at Cal Lutheran, explained that this has become a big industry, a lot of which happens with the use of computer programs.
“There are companies that buy up information and data from not just Facebook but sites like Google… They’ll buy up whole databases of information on individual users,” Marichal said.
Travel sites, retail sites, and search engines are also big contributors. Google, for example, admittedly has computer programs to read through its user’s emails. Sites like these gather information about people and then it’s a game of buying and selling.
In terms of technicalities, computers do most of the exchanges of the bulk information that is gathered, not people.
According to Sharon Docter, professor of communication at Cal Lutheran, it only takes seconds for Internet user’s information to get caught up in the process of buying and selling.
“It’s usually done by algorithms… What [users] search gets compiled and there’s a profile put together about [that user]. That then gets sold very quickly for pennies, for fractions of pennies. All of this is a huge industry,” Docter said.
The reason why Facebook is such a big provider of this information, according to both Marichal and Sandlin, is directly related to how much information people have become used to sharing about themselves.
“There’s something like a million status updates every minute, to Facebook… Every time you put a status update about what you’ve done, where you are, how you feel, all of that can be put together into a profile of your spending habits, of where you go on a daily basis,” Marichal said.
Tealium, Ensighten and Enterprise are all tag management companies. These are the retailers in the business that sell user information.
While many people feel infringed upon in terms of how much of their personal life has become public, Marichal and Sandlin explained that there are plus sides to such an industry.
Marichal said the information has opened the gates to encourage and promote voting in elections.
He said that the political ads are not so much to convince people to vote for one party or another, just to vote for someone. He explained that since only about 40 percent of voters turn out for midterm elections, using ads to get people to vote could determine an election simply because of the number of people voting who otherwise would not be.
“What the campaigns are using a lot of that data for is to figure out how to get you to vote…If [one party] can get their side to turn out, they can do way better,” Marichal said.
He said the Obama administration was especially good at this because they were able to convince people to come out and vote using the information that they gathered about people on the Internet.
Sandlin said she thinks people are willing to put up with a certain level of privacy invasion to have access to free things like Facebook.
“There are definitely arguments on both sides. Some people say that it’s great because they want help like that. They want relevancy…and then other people say ‘Wow, I feel really violated, like someone has been spying on me’,” Sandlin said.
While many people have expressed feeling violated by Facebook and other sites selling their information, Sandlin explained that it is perfectly legal for these sites to be tracking users the way that they do.
“There is a lot of information and we are actually giving them permission to go and sift through it, and to share it… So it’s certainly legal. They make sure it’s legal,” Sandlin said.
Docter explained that people have to be aware of the fact that their information is no longer private.
“I think in the technological age that we live in today, there are some concerns about privacy,” Docter said. “I don’t think people realize the amount of information that gets collected about them.”
Published October 15, 2014