Facebook. Instagram. Google. Twitter. All services we rely on, and all services we believe we don’t have to pay for. Not with cash, anyway. But ad-financed internet platforms aren’t free, and the price they extract in terms of privacy and control is getting only costlier.
A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that 93 per cent of the public believes that “being in control of who can get information about them is important”, and yet the amount of information we generate online has exploded and we seldom know where it all goes.
Facebook and other social networking sites that collect vast amounts of user data are financed by ads. Just this week, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, announced plans to open users’ feeds to more advertisers. The dirty secret of this business model is that internet ads aren’t worth much. Ask Ethan Zuckerman, who in the 1990s helped found Tripod.com, one of the web’s earliest ad-financed sites with user-generated content. He even helped invent the pop-up ad because corporations were wary of the user content appearing next to their ads. He came to regret both: the pop-up and the ad-financed business model. The former is annoying but it is the latter that is helping destroy the fabric of a rich, pluralistic internet.
Zuckerman points out that Facebook makes about 20 cents per user per month in profit. This is a pitiful sum, especially since the average user spends an impressive 20 hours on Facebook every month, according to the company. This paltry profit margin drives the business model: internet ads are basically worthless unless they are hyper-targeted based on tracking and extensive profiling of users. This is a bad bargain, especially since two-thirds of American adults don’t want ads that target them based on that tracking and analysis of personal behaviour.
This way of doing business rewards huge Internet platforms, since ads that are worth so little can support only companies with hundreds of millions of users.
Ad-based businesses distort our online interactions. People flock to internet platforms because they help us connect with one another or the world’s bounty of information―a crucial, valuable function. Yet, ad-based financing means that companies have an interest in manipulating our attention on behalf of advertisers, instead of letting us connect as we wish. Many users think their feed shows everything that their friends post. It doesn’t. Facebook runs its billion-plus users’ newsfeed by a proprietary, ever-changing algorithm that decides what we see. If Facebook didn’t have to control the feed to keep us on the site longer and to inject ads into our stream, it could instead offer us control over this algorithm.
Many nonprofits and civic groups that were initially thrilled about their success in using Facebook to reach people are now despondent as their entries are less and less likely to reach people who “liked” their posts unless they pay Facebook to help boost their updates.
What to do? It is simple: Internet sites should allow their users to be the customers. I would, as I bet many others would, happily pay more than 20 cents per month for a Facebook or a Google that did not track me, upgraded its encryption and treated me as a customer whose preferences and privacy matter.
Many people say that no significant number of users will ever pay directly for internet services. But that is because we are misled by the mantra that these services are free. With growing awareness of the privacy cost of ads, this may well change. Millions of people pay for Netflix, despite the fact that pirated copies of many movies are available free. We eventually pay for ads, anyway, as that cost is baked into products we purchase. A seamless, secure micropayment system that spreads a few pennies at a time as we browse a social network, up to a preset monthly limit, would alter the whole landscape for the better.
There are other obstacles. Someone has to build those viable, privacy-preserving micropayment systems, but Silicon Valley is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, right? And we are not starting from scratch. Micropayment systems that would allow users to spend a few cents here and there, not be so easily tracked by all the Big Brothers, and even allow personalisation, were developed in the early days of the internet. Big banks and large internet platforms didn’t show much interest in this micropayment path, which would limit their surveillance abilities. We can revive it.
Our payments could subsidise access in poorer countries the way ads already do. If even a quarter of Facebook’s 1.5 billion users were willing to pay $1 per month in return for not being tracked or targeted based on their data, that would yield more than $4 billion per year―surely a number worth considering.
Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, seems to have plenty of money, but I would like to give him some of mine. I want to pay a small fee for the right to keep my information private and to be able to hear from the people I want, and not the sponsored-content makers I want to avoid. I want to be a customer, not a product.
Zuckerberg has reportedly spent more than $30 million to buy the homes around his in Palo Alto, California, and more than $100 million for a secluded parcel of land in Hawaii. He knows privacy is worth paying for. So, he should let us pay a few dollars to protect ours.
Tufekci is an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina.