Can we move toward an internet where your personal data isn't currency to be traded with advertisers, and where services exist for the common good? The good news is that it already exists.
There’s a massive elephant in the room, and the problem is far bigger than Facebook. It's capitalism, and how it manifests itself on the internet.
The solution? A socialist internet - in which the internet is a tool for common good rather than a vehicle for profit.
Guess what? That internet already exists.
Let's be clear on what the fuss is about. An external researcher harvested the personal details of 50 million Facebook users by getting them to use a "personality app".
He then gave the data to a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, without getting the consent of the users.
Cambridge Analytica has bragged about it’s role in the Trump campaign and was involved in the Brexit campaign – and the concern is that Facebook data may have been used to support these victories.
What we should be equally worried about is that Facebook already has the data of not just those 50 million users, but of all more than 2 billion active users, and in far greater detail.
They know who most of your friends and acquaintances are, how often you interact with them, what your likes, dislikes, hobbies and work interests are, where you live, where you travel, what your face looks like, your contact information, your phone and laptop model, your internet service provider (ISP), which websites you visit and much more.
We willingly give our private data to Facebook, and give Facebook the consent to use it to earn its annual net income of almost US $16 billion.
Without our consent, Facebook has also (willingly or unwillingly) shared large amounts of our data with government bodies such as the US National Security Agency.
Of course, none of this information is new, but it should make us realise that the Cambridge Analytica scandal is probably the least of our problems when it comes to privacy.
Facebook is just a symptom of a larger disease
The #DeleteFacebook campaign makes it seem like Facebook is an isolated case of an online business that has overstepped its boundaries.
However, most of us should be well aware by now that the problem isn't that of Facebook alone, but it is the business model shared by most internet behemoths controlling the most valuable online real estate, in which we are not the customers, but the commodity.
Facebook and other social media sites sell our eyeballs to advertisers so that we can buy their products. That is their business model.
This business model is novel in some ways, but in essence it is not different from traditional ad-based media. They give us free content to consume, and then sell some of our attention to businesses wanting to sell us things.
The key difference, as far as privacy is concerned, is that the internet allows the businesses to know far more about our personal lives and preferences than was the case for traditional media.
For example, a commercial radio station trying to sell an ad spot to an advertiser would only be able to provide the broad generalised demographics and preferences of its listeners, not the personal and granular details that Facebook offers. But if that radio station could do what Facebook can, then it would, because that is the model of success that we idealise – and it's called capitalism.
One way to describe capitalism is as an economic system in which things are produced not to meet a social need, but so that the capitalist can sell them for a profit. This is precisely what corporations have done to the internet – they have turned it in to a big marketplace to sell things that most people do not need so that a tiny privileged few can hoard more wealth.
As long as we are living in such a system, the pressure will always be on companies like Facebook to be as predatory as they can to maximise profits for its shareholders.
It is what drives capitalists to steal private data and sell it to the highest bidder, or to steal entire communities of humans and sell them to the highest bidder.
Those of us who believe that a better world can be created, in which poverty is eradicated and the caste system of worker and capitalist is abolished, are often accused of being dreamers and Utopians.
It's difficult to imagine that societies without capitalism have existed in the past, or that a world without capitalism is possible in the future, so, when it comes to privacy and social media, many people will just shrug and say that this is just how the world works. Since Facebook is offering us their platform, they will obviously take something from us in exchange.
However, when it comes to software and the internet, it shouldn't be so difficult to imagine a better world, because it already exists – and it’s a large eco-system of software developer communities that have defied the hegemony of capitalism to a large extent.
The open internet
Free and open source software (FOSS) is a category of software that anyone is free to use, modify and distribute without compensating the original developer – in essence, it is software that does not have a private owner.
The idea behind the free software movement is that society as a whole benefits from having software that is communally owned as it allows the public to use the software, and encourages software developers to improve on each other's work rather than re-inventing the wheel within the confines of private company walls.
In fact, much of the software that forms the backbone of the internet and the web today is a product of the FOSS movement, whether it is the operating system of a website server (Linux), the software that delivers a webpage to you (Apache or nginx), the platform used to manage a website (Wordpress) or the browser on your computer to view a website (Firefox).
There is also a benefit to privacy. Capitalist entities like Facebook and Microsoft keep the source code of their software a fiercely guarded secret, so that no one can examine how it works in order to prevent anyone from copying or modifying it.
This means that when Facebook or Microsoft tell us that their software is not spying on us or stealing data from us, we have no way of verifying this and just have to take their word for it. FOSS software, on the other hand, is transparent.
For many of us, it may still be hard to understand the economics of how or why anyone would work on building a product that they cannot sell. But one example of this is Wikipedia.
Not only is the software used to run Wikipedia FOSS, but crucially all of the articles on Wikipedia have been written by volunteers, and can be freely copied, improved and distributed by the public.
The volunteers contribute their time to Wikipedia not in order to make a financial profit, but because they believe that society can benefit from their knowledge, as they can benefit from the knowledge of others.
This idea of helping each other voluntarily (sometimes called “mutual aid”) is at the same time both intuitive and extremely alien. On the one hand, this is how we behave with our family and friends, yet it is alien because our interactions with the rest of society are not dominated by sharing.
So, the technological groundwork has already been laid for an internet which doesn't doesn't steal data or exploit its users. It now requires the political and moral will of the rest of society to adopt those tools and services. They don't have the massive marketing budgets that the corporations have so you have to search for them yourself. And they don't have all of the frills of commercial projects just yet, but as more and more people join and contribute the services will get better and will start looking more like what you’re used to.
So for example, an alternative to Facebook is the Diaspora social network, where the data of users is not in the possession of a single corporate entity. Instead, the data is distributed across several independently managed but federated “pods”, among which you can choose where put your data (or you can even set up your own pod if you have a bit of technical knowledge).
The FOSS movement has shown that the internet and information technology can serve a greater purpose than a marketplace in which the richest companies always win – often at the unknown expense of the public.
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