Saturday, January 4, 2014

But Steven, the social tech companies are serving their customers

Steven Hodson made some excellent points in a blog post that he wrote this afternoon. He set down some thoughts that I have neglected to explicitly blog about, although I've referred to them a few times on Google+.

But here's a bit of what Hodson said:

As an overarching entity social media has been built around the very same idea as what the NSA is being condemned for. The constant collection of user information for use by companies and advertisers....

With social media though marketing companies have a real time firehose of consumer information that doesn’t cost them anything near what pre-social media methods did. Plus people are falling all over themselves to give away this “personal” information. From services like Foursquare to Twitter, pinterest to Instagram, and tumblr to Facebook the flow of free consumer information to marketers continues unabated.

I encourage you to read the entire thing here.

I only have one thing to add to Hodson's analysis. And this is a point that I've made several times in the past (here's an example).

Briefly, if you truly believe that social tech companies are your "friend," why don't you ask the social tech companies themselves? For example, before you plunk down over $1,000 a share to invest in Google, you may visit its investor relations page and read the answer to this question.

Who are our customers?

Google provides an answer that briefly describes its customers - over a million of them.

"John," some of you are saying, "you're getting your information from Facebook losers. Google has many more than one million customers! Last October, TIME reported that nearly 390 million people were using Google+ alone!"

Sorry, but I stand by my number. Google has less than two million customers. Here's how Google answered the question:

Our customers are over one million of advertisers, from small businesses targeting local customers to many of the world's largest global enterprises, who use Google AdWords to reach millions of users around the world.

I've made this point countless times, but it bears repeating because it is so critical to understanding how social tech companies work. Google, Facebook, Foursquare, and the like have to serve their customers - advertisers, venture capitalists, data purchasers, whoever. To serve their customers, the social tech companies have to obtain as much data from the users as is possible. The users are not the customers; the users are the meal ticket.

So how does this relate to the NSA? Actually, there's a parallel here.

Both Steven Hodson's Canada and my United States employ a republican form of government; this republican (small r) form of government is a multi-tiered system in which the people elect representatives who actually do the governing for the people. (For the moment I'll ignore the multiple levels of government - provinces, states, counties, cities, etc. - and just concentrate on the national government.)

Theoretically, the U.S. National Security Agency and the Canadian Communications Security Establishment operate on behalf of the respective country's citizens. But for all practical purposes, these agencies are directly controlled by the executive branch members that tell them what to do, and the legislative branch members that give them money. And in some cases, that control was not that rigorous.

And anyone with half a brain realizes that the U.S. government is not the only government that has been accused of spying on its own citizens. Consider this Canadian lawsuit by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association:

On October 22, 2013, the BCCLA filed a lawsuit against the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) claiming that its secret and unchecked surveillance of Canadians is unconstitutional....

The BCCLA’s lawsuit argues that two aspects of the CSEC’s operations violate the Charter’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure: the interception of the private communications of Canadians and the sweeping collection of metadata information produced by Canadians.

So there are clear parallels between government spy agencies that don't necessarily represent the interests of their citizens, and social technology companies that don't necessarily represent the interests of their users.

However, I see one difference between the two cases.

If overly zealous government spying becomes public knowledge, then there are people within the government itself (such as opportunistic politicians from the opposition party) who will fight within the government to stop the controversial activity.

But if overly zealous tech company data collection becomes public knowledge, will there be people within the company itself who will fight within the company to stop the controversial activity?

I doubt it.
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