L’affaire Facebook should force users to be more aware
In August 2016, Jonathan Obar from York University in Toronto and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut (UConn), carried out a fascinating study of social behaviour on the internet.
They told a group of undergraduate communication studies students that the university had been asked to evaluate a new social networking site called NameDrop.
In order to access the site, they had to sign up giving their consent to specific terms of service and privacy policies which, as is the wont on most social platforms, were extremely lengthy. But significantly, they were no different from the ones on popular sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
NameDrop was a completely fictitious site and some of the clauses in the agreement were cooked up. Thus, one of the clauses stated that the data collected by NameDrop may be shared with third parties including the US National Security Agency.
Another clause stated that the participants, by accepting the terms, would give up their first-born child to NameDrop.
Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch’s findings were stunning: 98% of the participants agreed to the child assignment clause and the data-sharing policy without raising any concerns.
As the report concluded, most people simply don’t bother reading the dense terms of service and privacy policies they encounter on the internet. In fact, most of us look upon these policies and their ensuing terms as minor irritants on the way to the holy grail that awaits us, with the result that we sign in to be exploited. Indeed, if the Facebook scandal makes us more aware as consumers and users, it might just have been worth it.
Awful and disturbing as the incident was, it was neither unprecedented nor unexpected.
Sure, Facebook is responsible for the biggest ever breach of trust between a company and its customers.
The 50-million people whose accounts were breached were paying customers of the company. Each of them contributed to the $10 billion of profits that the company posted in 2016. Which makes the company’s actions tantamount to betrayal!
Not for the first time, though. It is now clear that the whole of the internet economy has been growing too fast too soon without putting in place adequate safeguards for data protection and respect for the privacy of its users.
In the race for eyeballs, the logic has been to get the customer first and then worry about such issues as trust.
Just a few days back, the European Union (EU) said it had “grave suspicions” about the dominance of Google and has not ruled out breaking it up, according to the bloc’s antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager.
Last year, the EU slapped Google with a record €2.4 billion fine after it found enough evidence to believe that the company was giving its own comparison shopping service an illegal advantage in search results.
In the wake of the scandal, Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, have been forthright about the need to put in place systems and processes to protect the rights of their users.
Betting on that happening would be both naïve and hazardous. Nothing in the past behaviour of companies far more hoary than Facebook would seem to suggest that they are the custodians of honesty and ethical behaviour.
Banks who led unsuspecting borrowers to raise double mortgages on their homes, auto companies that lied about emission norms, pharma companies that hiked prices of essential drugs the moment they realized there was a shortage—these are now an integral part of the corporate environment.
Forget companies, mighty governments have failed to stop crucial data on their citizens from being leaked out.
So what’s a consumer to do? The answer is actually quite simple. Before signing up to access all those myriad sites and apps, spend time to read the fine print of the agreements much as one would before buying a house or any other expensive asset. That we don’t do so is because we haven’t yet come to terms with the value of the personal information we share with these companies in return for a handful of goodies.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.
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