THE STRATEGIC LAWYER

::.law + strategy.::.law + governance.::.law + politics.::. ::.you get the jist.::

Why Google is like a Babel Fish

I was excited when I saw the title of the upcoming talk, co-sponsored by Communitech and CIGI: “Privacy, Access and Corporate Control: The Battle for Canada’s Internet”. The fact that there was also breakfast, and the opportunity to meet people in the community and network was just a wonderful bonus.

As it turned out, I ended up meeting quite a few people at the event, and struck up several interesting conversations–I really enjoyed that opportunity and would definitely attend such events in the future. The talk itself, however, was a little bit of a letdown for me. It may just have been that I was not the target audience.

What I had expected: a discussion and analysis of issues relating to questions around privacy, access and corporate control (e.g. data mining by all the free services like Google and Facebook, who make a business out of information in aggregate and skillfully reaping demographic details on target markets and the like). I expected some discussion of the controversies and problems associated with these issues and a substantive analysis that acknowledged both why we accept these services and what is wrong with doing so.

What I got: an overview of what appears to be a worthy NGO, the Internet Society. The speakers introduced us to the Internet Society’s focus around providing access, education and advocacy, and urged us to join the newly-minted Canadian chapter of the organization. For the moment, it’s free to do so, and I may do just that, once I’ve done some deeper research into the organization. But on the surface, it seems to be just up my alley as an independent body that would seek to raise awareness of issues arising out of the information economy as it is emerging and developing. The aims are all ones that I align with and could get behind.

But I still left the talk unsatisfied. Why? Because they could have (and did) sell me on their organization in the five or ten minute presentation at the beginning of the session. At that point, I had heard enough to pique my interest and persuade me to delve further in order to make an independent decision, having done my own due diligence, on whether or not I wanted to join. Mission accomplished.

But what I hadn’t heard–and didn’t hear before I had to leave for work–was anything substantive around why the problems were problems and how they sought to address them. So, for instance, in the Q&A, the first question posed by an audience member was something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing): “I have concerns about privacy, but when I try to warn my [younger relative] about such issues around Facebook or Gmail, he just says he has nothing to hide, so he doesn’t care. How do you even respond to that?”

The response was along the lines of: “Yes! This is precisely the problem we’re facing. This is why we have to educate people on these issues and try to get the message out!”

Which may be true. But I actually wanted an answer to the question itself. The speakers were assuming we all understood the privacy concerns, and their implications. But though I attended events on privacy issues at law school, I keep up on the latest controversies around terms of use, and have a genuine interest in how our privacy is being intruded upon in a half a million ways, all at a quarter to three, I still use Facebook. And Google. And a good many other services that provide front-end free access in return for back-end data mining. I know it, and I do it. And I’m willing to guess a good few other people in that room do too, since many of them are entrepreneurs who no doubt leverage social media and other such tools in order to get their products and services out into the community.

And while I can’t speak for why others do it, despite having some awareness of privacy issues, here is why I make the choice to be data mined:

  1. I want to use products that work well and are convenient, time-saving, well-designed and well-integrated. Because I’m busy. I want the convenience of access on my phone because I’m not going to be at my computer all the time and that access facilitates my work. I want (non-confidential) files that I save in one place to be seamlessly synced in the background across my connected devices and computers, so I don’t have to remember where I put my USB and whether I saved the latest version of that story I was working on, or if that version is still on the computer I was using at my in-laws’ place. The products put out by most of these free services like Google are all of the above, having been refined over multiple generations into useful, mature products that make my life easier and have a minimal number of irritating bugs that crash, cause loss of data, and waste my time and effort.
  2. personal and professional connection. At this point, there’s such profound, widespread uptake of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn that if you choose to eschew them, you are being left out of essential conversations, core social interactions and key developments. At a personal level, this is how we keep in touch with those we care about, in the course of an absurdly busy routine. That doesn’t even touch on opportunities, for everyone from artists to entrepreneurs, for promotion, connection, sharing of resources and meaningful interaction. And here’s the thing: there’s such uptake, and these platforms are so powerful because they are free. If there were a charge, there’d be far fewer people on Facebook (remember Classmates.com? Yeah, me neither), and maybe there’d be better privacy settings, but who would care? No one–because no-one would be there. We wouldn’t need to be on those services because far fewer people would be on them, and so they wouldn’t serve the essential function that the free versions do.
  3. I see the data mining process as fair exchange–a symbiosis, if you will. I understand that I’m being target marketed (and actually kind of appreciate those targeted ads–because if I happen to read those ads–which I actually often filter out–at least they’re for things I’d be interested in rather than stuff that I could care less about). I don’t mind, because I’m getting a lot out of that relationship. I don’t have a wad of cash, so I’m paying using a currency of data and information that can feed the aggregate, in return for services that I value and find really useful. It’s like the babel fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Google and Facebook feed off my brainwaves in ways I don’t notice and don’t miss, in return for my being able to do amazing things like understand all languages, or communicate across vast distances.
  4. at some level, I wonder whether the notion of privacy as a standard, inherent right or expectation is a modern, western invention and conceit. We’ve never really had it, have we? Historically and in other parts of the world, it’s physical privacy that’s the luxury and the rarity within densely populated areas, while in this part of the world, it’s mental privacy. In our connected society, we sit in our private apartments and houses, and are able to share our every thought, impression and experience, with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people at a time.

I’m guessing that most of the other people in that room shared at least a few, similar reasons for justifying their own use of social media.

So back to the man’s question: what DO you say to all of us, who figure we have nothing to hide?

I really wanted to know. Am I missing something? Is the issue just that those who are upset about this place a higher value than I do on the inherent concept of privacy itself? Or are there other implications, which, if I learned about them, would see me signing out of Facebook and beginning an advocacy campaign that would demand changes in all the terms of service for social media sites?

I don’t know how the speakers would have responded to these issues, because unfortunately, these questions were never addressed. And I really wish they had been.

(p.s. if you want something that will really creep you out about our interconnected society, read this. What he talks about isn’t the issue I’m discussing above, which has to do with what I see as a “value for consideration” type proposition between myself and FB or Google et al. He’s talking about the essential nature of our modern lives, whether or not we use such services. What he describes is not quite the big brother posited by Orwell, mainly because all that information isn’t concentrated in the hands of one all-powerful entity (yet). But the scope of it is certainly daunting. On the other hand, it’s not something you can necessarily opt out of in a developed society unless you’re an underground bunker in the woods type).

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This entry was posted on April 18, 2013 by in Policy, Rights, Social Media, Tech and tagged , , , , , , .
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