I took an overall look at my social media strategy (you can find out my results in this post) earlier this year. Recently, though, I saw a post in Facebook Messenger where someone had just found out about how FB has violated people’s privacy across the board. The link they posted was from a Fox News report in 2017, but the conclusions are still valid, if a bit over-alarmist. Here’s my take on privacy on the Internet (that includes the World Wide Web where we see websites and social media, and email, which is technically private).
The Dark Side of the Ad Model
Back in the day when information and entertainment were broadcast over the airwaves into television and radio sets, we got it “for free” because companies used the medium to show us ads. Broadcasters and sponsoring companies had less power to gather information about us in those days. But they did have greater visibility than they had with print ads, so it was worth it to “reach the masses.”
Then came the Internet, and more importantly, the Worldwide Web, which gave companies a new two-way information flow with the masses. The deal with search engines (Google) and social media (Facebook, Twitter) is that in return for “free” access to these programs and the connections they provided, your profile information could be sold to advertisers to fine-tune their messages to you. Don’t you love that as soon as you buy something on Amazon, all sorts of ads for the same and related projects show up on social media? Yeah, it’s a bit creepy, but that’s the price you pay for “free” access to social media.
So, it’s annoying, but it can get dangerous. Entities that want to influence the way you think or feel can either use ads or more nefarious messages that don’t look like ads (think Russia’s use of social media to influence American elections or the Brexit referendum) to manipulate us. The social media companies don’t have a built-in incentive to monitor where these messages are coming from. So, the potential to manipulate you is very much there.
The Reality of No Privacy
It is up to us to protect our privacy in whatever environment we are in, but definitely while on the Internet. That said, there will always be limits on how private we can be. To be truly private, we’d have to give up the Web and the Internet altogether, and disconnect all the built-in computer stuff in our homes and cars. And we’d have to pay cash for all our shopping and only shop in the physical world. Not very realistic today.
First thing to acknowledge is that we will continue to pay a privacy price for using the Internet. I make the assumption that nothing I do or write or say on the Internet (and that includes ostensibly private email) is completely protected. For the most part, though, I can assume that no one much cares about my daily round of email correspondence.
I am also willing to take the risk of having my identity stolen or my credit card information taken. Most retailers on the Web use basic technical security systems that work well most of the time. I will just check my bank account regularly and not lose a bunch of sleep over it.
Alternatives to the Ad Model
What I’m looking for these days to enhance my privacy on the Web are purveyors of social media or search or stuff I want to buy that don’t work on the ad model with its moral hazards and “data mining” (gathering info about you to sell to others).
I am also minimizing my interactions with companies that use the ad model. In some cases, it means paying for subscriptions to services rather than getting stuff for “free,” but a lot of the time I can still get free stuff. I am a fan of the freemium model used for a lot of software tools these days. With the freemium model, the provider of a product or service has much less incentive to use data mining to support themselves. They provide a lower level of service or a product with fewer features for free, and then you pay for extras.
Enhancing My Privacy in a Public World
Here’s how I’m using my common sense, and some of the new respect for privacy that’s a bit easier to find nowadays, to manage privacy.
I could leave FB, like a number of my friends have done, but family and personal friends are not likely to all move on to the latest social network. There’s comfort in what we already know, especially for those (like my mom) who are not into learning how to use tech stuff.
Instead, I have deleted a bunch of historical information, minimized my page likes, deleted my business pages, set my sharing to Friends rather than Public, sworn off any types of games, ignored all ads and click bait, deleted all application connections, and generally minimized my participation except for groups that are important to me. Yes, that does restrict my numerical reach potential for my businesses, but FB wasn’t helping me be visible that way anyway. And, I have more time for other stuff!
Remember, Facebook owns this social network (also WhatsApp), so let the user beware. I do use Instagram more because of its focus on pictures. It still has ads, though, so I have to think about the future value of this outlet.
I use MeWe (has a user interface like FB’s), which works on the freemium model rather than an ad model, and promises no data mining. That’s good for now, but I’ll keep an eye on them as they grow. My business pages and interest groups are over there. And I keep my actual contacts (like FB friends) to a minimum. If you want to check it out, just click the link to my profile in the first sentence of this paragraph.
Yep, that search engine also mines data (what a big cache of it they have!). Google also works on the ad model, although they haven’t gotten in quite as much trouble as Facebook, at least not yet.
I’m reluctant to give up my Gmail addresses at this point. Way too convenient, so I spent time going through my Google privacy and security settings to minimize their data mining (it takes a little time, but it’s worth it to get some control). But I still let Google keep track of what I’m searching for to give me suggestions, so they know more about me than I’d really like.
I don’t use Google as my default search engine anymore, though. With a recent update to the Apple Mac operating system, their browser, Safari, defaults to Duck Duck Go. It’s a search engine that does a better job of protecting privacy (doesn’t track all your searches or allow other engines to access them, no ads, it’s still free).
So, that about covers my knowledgebase and philosophy of dealing with the very public and potentially manipulative world of the Internet. I consider this my best compromise to benefit from what the Web has to offer and still feel like I’m not being totally exploited. 🙂