There has been much controversy recently about the so-called “loss of privacy” brought about by large tech companies, like Facebook and Google. There are lots of people telling us how concerned we should be about giving up our data - but almost no one can tell us exactly why. And even fewer people are reminding us that privacy is a small price to pay for what those tech platforms have created for our lives, economies and societies.
As it becomes more and more fashionable among both the public and lawmakers to focus on the perceived negatives of these companies, we are forgetting the positives which, if we are still aware of them at all, seem to be being taken for granted.
Those positives are significant. For instance, Big Tech has created the most personalised, relevant and effective advertising in history. This has delivered huge benefits to consumers, to the point that an irrelevant or inappropriate advert appearing online is a moment for outcry or confusion.
Much bigger than the benefits to consumers, however, is the economic gain. There are so many small and medium-sized businesses which now have access to cost-effective, targeted advertising, thanks to Big Tech’s algorithms.
I have lost count of the number of businesses which have been able to survive, thrive, grow and create jobs with business models based purely on online advertising; online advertising that is built on algorithms and data harvested and harnessed by Big Tech. With old, offline advertising, those businesses would have gone bust long ago.
But this is not a case the large tech companies are willing to make. Afraid of public outcry if the trade-off between privacy and quality of advertising is made explicit, they have withdrawn from the debate.
The result? We are seldom reminded that giving up our privacy is a small price to pay for receiving the best advertising ever created, to say nothing of the knock-on benefits in terms of economic growth and employment from which we all benefit, directly or indirectly.
Rather than allay our concerns, Big Tech’s silence has worsened them. We suspect that they have access to much more data than they are openly admitting. I certainly feel that the built-in recording facility in smartphones is being used by Facebook’s ads algorithm. On two recent occasions, I have had conversations with friends - once about joining a gym and once about going on holiday - that then almost immediately seemed to influence the ads Facebook was showing me.
What is so bad about being told about gyms in your area when you are considering joining one, or learning about Thai holidays when you are planning a getaway? Would it have been better if Facebook had shown me ads displayed at random, trying to sell me cupcakes and stair lifts instead?
This seems ludicrous, but it was the reality with which we were all faced until recently - and still do face in non-targeted advertising, like roadside billboards or general print advertising. Unsurprisingly, we tune out when consuming those media - but tune in when we are viewing highly-relevant ads online. Online advertising works because we like it - even if some of us pretend not to.
I for one am very happy with the hyper-relevant ads I have “bought” by “selling” my privacy. If I could, I would trade up even further: I would be happy for Facebook to have access to my thoughts if it meant I received better targeted ads.
Lawmakers seem to disagree with me, however. Where the first two decades of this millennium were spent demonising and regulating banks, it seems that the third decade will be spent making Big Tech into the new bogeyman.
This means higher taxes, more regulation and perhaps even a climate of personal persecution against the founders who have made these platforms a part of our lives. These are conditions that stifle entrepreneurship, and would have stopped the dotcom boom in its tracks if they were present a generation ago.
It is important that Big Tech be open and honest about the data they are taking from us - and equally frank and unapologetic about why it is worth us handing it over. Until we are willing to pay a monthly subscription for using Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, it is the only way to make their businesses sustainable.
Regulators should remember that before they clamp down too hard on advertising platforms that we all benefit from. Privacy is overrated - social media isn’t.
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