It is no secret that social media websites like Facebook and others mine our data and track our various online movements. How they use this information is also relatively clear to most. The official justification is to provide us with advertisements that are specifically tailored for us. The rationale for this favor is clear as day. The more information they have on you, the more valuable your profile to a potential company that wants to target your particular category of individuals. The more valuable you are in this way, the higher your price tag. Every one of your movements on Facebook makes you more profitable for Facebook.
All of the above is now old news. A new short film by The Independent, however, illustrates the visceral creepiness of Facebook’s reach. It depicts a café somewhere in England encouraging their customers to like them on Facebook in return for free pastry. The Like enables the café to access all sorts of information about the customers. For effect, the café works in cahoots with a team of tech savvy millennials in the back of a van who relay all kinds of information about the café’s patrons to the baristas. These guys then write down the relayed data on the coffee cups and shock their clients with how much they know about them.
The effect is chilling. Damien discovers that the café in question now knows his profession, mother’s maiden name, and bank. Carly lives at 38A. Ana is from Russia. Martin is a Christian—indeed, the barista says, ‘We know everything about you Martin.’ And so on. And they do...
Force and consent
There is something to be said about platforms and products whose presence is so ubiquitous that not using them, the courts might say, would constitute an unreasonable expectation in certain circumstances. In effect, one is forced to use certain of these products. Where there is force in this way, the question is: What about my consent? If one is forced by one’s circumstances into particular ways of acting or living one’s life, and those ways require one to use a company’s products, does the company need our consent to then use our information as they see fit?
Consent under lax laws There are, of course, laws to protect against the abuse that this structure has a knack for producing. Privacy laws and the like are meant to protect Damien, Carly, and all of us from the intrusions into personal space that create the effect of shock that is palpable throughout The Independent’s short film.
But we all know that these privacy laws are lax. Who knew, for instance, that Facebook tracks the speed at which you scroll through content, noting whenever you slow down to look at a particular kind of content? Guess what they do with the content category that caught your eye. They show you more of it and let their advertising partners know that Damien has a thing for, well, who knows. Suddenly Damien, without his consent ever entering the picture, is being repeatedly exposed to something that he feels a bit bad about for looking at once or twice.
Non-consent and non-terms
In fact, half of the research has been done before, and the results are not encouraging. Not only do most people not read Facebook’s Terms of Service, they proceed to accept the terms because of an underlying defeatism: If you don’t accept the terms, however intrusive they may be, then you will be unable to join the rest of your peers in an activity that is now so widespread that even cafés in the middle of England’s nowhere-land are catching on to it.
In other circumstances, we know that consent must be freely given for it to count as consent. Lawyers call these circumstances ones of duress. They are such that you could not be reasonably expected to do anything except what you proceed to do. Consent is obliterated by the gunman every time.
Is Facebook the gunman of social media? Not really. It is, of course, not impossible to abstain and foreswear the social media kerfuffle. Yet it isn’t particularly likely. More importantly, it appears as though Facebook is becoming more and more of a gunman by the day.