The other day, the news broke that the social network Facebook had 1 billion logins in a day. Now, we can question that figure in terms of meaningful logins; after all there are such things as bots and parody accounts on the site. Having said that, I doubt that the figure is far enough out for it to matter too much. What bothers me is that meaning of that figure for the open Internet and also for the future of privacy.
Facebook and other sites represent a walled garden of the kind that used to exist in the old days. I’ve heard people rail against Apple for having a walled garden ecosystem, Microsoft will doubtless go the same way and Google have been known to throw apps out of their app store. But all of this is a necessity if you propose to run a secure app ecosystem. You need to act as bouncer to kick out misbehaving apps. At the same time new apps need to be vetted. I suspect a better term than “walled garden” is “curated library”. There have been, and will continue to be, breaches; but this is a remarkably safe way, compared to the old “download setup and run it” method of installing things. I’ve seen too many PCs covered in random browser toolbars and other cruft to argue with a better alternative.
The walled gardens of the web are, I think, more dangerous. Understandably, they need to lock the content down as this represents their income base; to see it, you must sign up and become part of the content base. These networks do mean that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to remain well informed if you’re not part of it. The danger here is a two tier Internet. I have already seen content that’s only on Facebook, which raises the question in my mind: how long until we have official Facebook exclusives? The notion of one company gaining that kind of monopoly on the content and the conversation is frightening, suddenly “freedom of speech” becomes “complies with the Terms of Service”. People who want to communicate and stay informed shouldn’t have to be subject to the whims of one company in such a way.
I’ve mused on this blog about privacy and social network before. My concerns are based more around analysis than anything else. It’s a fair point that anything revealed on the public Internet can be analysed, and bots crawl every website. But, on a closed social networking site it’s the case that people reveal much more than they might on the pubic Internet. That data is analysed and I’m not at all sure that there’s enough awareness of that. From my Buddhist perspective, I’m thinking of the precept against taking that which is not freely given. If I encourage a person to trust me enough to give me something but I don’t make my full intentions completely obvious, then is what I’m doing ethical? I consider that the answer to this is “no”; because the thing could not have been freely given without full awareness of my intentions. Yes, these things are mentioned in the Term and Conditions, but they need to be upfront and clearer.
I’m liking this slippery slope less and less.
I want to round up my thoughts on Externalisation. It’s responsible for a great deal of good, it can help us achieve great things, but does leave us very open to abuses of trust.
I want to mull that over for a minute. By externalising things both parties in the externalisation benefit from a degree of trust. What do I mean? Consider the example given two posts ago of the factory dumping it’s waste into a local river. Now, people downstream might not even be aware of this; if they are then they might take the view that the factory owners wouldn’t dump anything harmful in the river. You’d hope you can trust them. Of course, as one looks around the mess that Humanity has made of the environment, you can’t help but wonder about that.
Moving onwards, towards tech, we come to the large companies that seem to dominate the Internet these days. Dominate to the point that some people have wondered if we’re going back to the old days of walled gardens. As I’ve said previously, we externalise a lot of the effort involved in maintaining a social presence to these sites, but in this case the cost isn’t so obvious. To be sure, very few people would pay upfront for a site like Facebook, but by making the cost less obvious that isn’t a problem any more. For the company it makes sense, but for us? We get the service but at the cost of being profiled when we use the site, potentially monitored when we don’t use it, having the things we choose not to say analysed, having shadow profiles built on us and finally being subjected to social experimentation.
A good many companies are moving to cloud systems, yes there are benefits for them. But there are dangers. Consider the reaction to Windows 10, I’ve never seen techies so opposed to anything and I’m not the only one thinking that. Even when configured for maximum privacy, Windows 10 still talks back to Microsoft. If left unconfigured and installed in a doctors office or law practise, what are the ramifications of such a thing for client or patient confidentiality? If you’re forced to bring the data back in house, how do you obtain guarantees that it’s been removed from the cloud systems? What are the consequences if you can’t?
This is the world we’re moving towards, that we already have one foot in. More and more services will refrain from charging up front fees and will move towards less obvious methods of generating revenue. These methods will involve bombarding us with advertising or more unpleasant methods involving profiling and monitoring.
For my part, this is a world I find very distasteful and of highly dubious ethics. I’m already making Raspberry Pi based efforts to move away, when I’m ready I’ll write up what I’m doing and share it in the hope it benefits others of a similar cast of mind to myself.
Last week, I talked in my usual brief fashion about the idea of Externalisation. I want to expand my thinking on this a little further, to round things out. What I mean when I say Externalisation is the pushing off of costs onto a third party. The idea of somebody making a living by taking in other peoples washing is a good example. The price here is financial, but in other cases (for example modern cloud systems and social networks) the price is less obvious and in my view more insidious.
The current crop of “in play” social networks and search engines have certainly made the world smaller. The effort of communicating with and keeping up with a large number of people is hugely reduced. Especially for a group who are geographically dispersed. However, they charge for their services by providing targeted advertising or monetising personal data in one way or another. This isn’t always completely obvious, but is in the Terms and Conditions (which nobody really reads) and can often mean that you cede ownership of anything you put onto these networks. It’s also worth noticing how difficult it is to completely remove your data from these sites. I’d been talking about that problem two years ago and the recent Ashley Madison break in, with the continued existence of “deleted accounts” proves that I was completely correct.
Externalising things has huge benefits, the ability to call in specialists and to offload work that we find unpleasant, inconvenient or demeaning. I mean look at Subway, imagine having to bear the time, effort and cost of preparing all those sandwich ingredients and sauces yourself; not to mention the stuff you’d end up throwing in the bin when it went off. But by letting them do it, you get a very nice lunch and they have to deal with the messy stuff. Externalisation works beautifully, but comes with a cost. This can vary from control issues to trust issues (I know a horrible story about a well known UK pub chain, a staff Christmas party and an uncooked turkey), to giving up the ability to do the things competently for yourself.
It’s not all bad, but it’s not always worth it.