Facebook, Google and other tech companies are accused of stealing our data or at least of using it without our permission to become extraordinarily rich. Now is the time, say the critics, to stand up and take back our data. Ours, ours, ours.
In this way of thinking, our data is like our lawnmower and Facebook is a pushy neighbor who saw that our garage door was open, took our lawnmower, made a quick buck mowing people’s lawns, and now refuses to give our lawnmower back. Take back our lawnmower!
The reality is far different.
What could be more ours than our friends? Yet I have hundreds of friends on Facebook, most of whom I don’t know well and have never met. But my Facebook friends are friends. We share common interests and, most of the time, I’m happy to see what they are thinking and doing and I’m pleased when they show interest in what I’m up to. If, before Facebook existed, I had been asked to list “my friends,” I would have had a hard time naming ten friends, let alone hundreds. My Facebook friends didn’t exist before Facebook. My Facebook friendships are not simply my data—they are a unique co-creation of myself, my friends, and, yes, Facebook.
Some of my Facebook friends are family, but even here the relationships are not simply mine but a product of myself and Facebook. My cousin who lives in Dubai, for example, is my cousin whether Facebook exists or not, but I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, have never written him a letter, have never in that time shared a phone call. Nevertheless, I can tell you about the bike accident, the broken arm, the X-ray with more than a dozen screws—I know about all of this only because of Facebook. The relationship with my cousin, therefore, isn’t simply mine, it’s a joint creation of myself, my cousin and Facebook.
Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.
Facebook and Google have made billions in profits, but it’s utterly false to think that we, the users, have not been compensated. Have you checked the price of a Facebook post or a Google search recently? More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, none are charged. Google performs more than 3.5 billion searches every day, all for free. The total surplus created by Facebook and Google far exceeds their profits.
Moreover, it’s the prospect of profits that has led Facebook and Google to invest in the technology and tools that have created “our data.” The more difficult it is to profit from data, the less data there will be. Proposals to require data to be “portable” miss this important point. Try making your Facebook graph portable before joining Facebook.
None of this means that we should not be concerned with how data, ours, theirs, or otherwise, is used. I don’t worry too much about what Facebook and Google know about me. Mostly the tech companies want to figure out what I want to buy. Not such a bad deal even if the way that ads follow me around the world is at times a bit disconcerting. I do worry that they have not adequately enforced contractual restrictions on third-party users of our data. Ironically, it was letting non-profits use Facebook’s data that caused problems.
I also worry about big brother’s use of big data. Sooner or later, what Facebook and Google know, the government will know. That alone is good reason to think carefully about how much information we allow the tech companies to know and to store. But let’s get over the idea that it’s “our data.” Not only isn’t it our data, it never was.