When the Gravy Train Derails

Posted on December 13, 2013
Tags: technology control freedom

Tim Lavoie

Use of online services is commonplace now, to the extent that being briefly untethered from the net causes many to feel rather lost. I know, I’m pretty guilty here as well. We use them instead of talking on the phone, as shared photo albums and to announce life events and things we’d like to promote.

If you’ve followed along from my previous post, you’re now familiar with the idea that especially for free services, we aren’t the real customers. Maybe you’re fine with that. Personally, I do use them, but recognize that the relationship necessarily taints the manner in which I’m willing to use them.

The primary loss you face in using these services is control, both in detail and in the large. In typical hosted web applications such as social media, users provide the content which is the attraction for other users. Once uploaded, the content is in the custody and control of the host provider. That is, we now rely on the host to do what we expect and desire with the content we’ve provided. In essence, their job is to enable the fun aspects of sharing, while protecting us to some degree from ourselves and malicious others. In exchange for providing a structured means for self-publishing and organization with others, the hosting companies get content for free, a means of self-promotion, and a platform on which to sell advertising.

While the intent is to follow certain self- or market-imposed guidelines on how this user content is used, the end result is that we must rely on the hosting company to honour their promises. Some sort of restricted access is always part of the deal, if only to provide the users with some self-directed administrative interface. Facebook uses the analogy of “friends” whose link requests we have accepted, Twitter has “followers” and Google+ has “circles”. In each case, content has some basic default handling which the user can select, and a subset of this access for the general public.

Facebook privacy settings example

In this example, we can see Facebook’s privacy settings as configured in terms of access to my content, and access to be able to communicate with me.

The problem is that your content is valuable to the host company, so it is in their best interest if you share as much as possible. You are asked to link to friends and family who also use the service, invite others to become new members and to identify people in photographs. Detailed data you post about your interests and connections with other people allows them to more effectively market to you. If you use Facebook, your default settings may be considerably more open than this, so that unknown members of the public can see what you are up to online. Google’s circles are rather more granular, in that you can create more specific groups than Facebook’s “everyone you know”-style list. Combined with other things you may willingly supply, they have a veritable gold mine of your information.

Their gold mine can be your quicksand, in that either accidental bugs or changes to their terms of service can mean that your information is more widely dispersed without more than a token click-through at best. Data you provided earlier gets lumped in with the new terms, so that you must remain personally vigilant to changes which might affect data you supplied under different assumptions. A good example of how this can be used, with Google’s recent changes to use your picture and reviews in ads shown to people you know. Facebook is apparently doing the same thing for products and services that you click “like” on. Either way, the linking of identities is being used to flog products based on personal relationships. Considering that everybody and their dog is constantly begging for or flogging contests with encouragement to “like” or “+1” their pages, it should be no surprise when we start seeing a bunch of people we know splashed all over product placement ads. I don’t know about you, but free use of a site is a far cry from being paid to endorse something,

Another area of concern lately is the longevity of the services provided, and whether or not you will be able to get your data back out of them if you are forced to look for alternatives. Last March, Google announced that they were shutting down their Google Reader web app for reading RSS feeds. For those who don’t know, these feeds are a great way to keep track of a goodly number of sites such as news sites and blogs. The Reader interface was quick, responsive and synced across whatever systems and platforms you used to access it. By shutting down, users had to look for alternatives running on other providers or as local programs. Google provided three months’ notice though, which was quite reasonable, as well as a simple way to get your own feed list exported in a common format (OPML) for use in other programs. What is somewhat lesser-known is that they have an internal team called the, “Data Liberation Front” working to provide users access to their own data. This means that you can go to the Google Takeout site, and download an archive of your own data. Blogger posts, email, photographs, all sorts of things can be retrieved. While the availability of your own information should be commonplace, it most certainly isn’t. Facebook certainly doesn’t do this, nor will they make it easy for you to simply leave their site and have your data completely deleted. I used to actually pay for an exercise-related site which I quite liked, for lots of reasons, but left because I couldn’t get access to my own tracking data. Sure, I could see some canned graphs and other metrics, but plain-format access to my own data was considered an upgrade feature that I should pay extra for. Maybe they’re better now, I sure hope so.