Published in Mar-Apr 2021
Back in the late nineties during the boom of cable TV, we had an old saying in the media industry… if you are not paying for the product then YOU ARE THE PRODUCT! And what a product you all are. The giants of the world are right now fighting over you, battling it out to win your eyeballs, because those eyeballs are the most powerful currency in the digital age. If you think ex-President Trump tried to ban TikTok for any other reason than to help American platforms retain the lead on social business revenue, then you are very naïve and gullible indeed. To put a number to it, Facebook earned $86 billion last year and by their own admission, 97% came from advertising on their various platforms. Google earned $146.92 billion through advertising. These are serious numbers.
There was a time when gold was considered the most precious commodity, then mankind slaughtered each other over oil and now people’s data is valued above all else because it is what drives the global advertising business. Advertising is no longer just about selling products, it is also about selling ideas... even very dangerous ones like lying to the public and making them believe a president has won an election when he didn’t.
But why are Facebook and Google fighting each other over Princess Billo from DG Khan for the right to show her an ad for a banaspati brand? To understand how personal data suddenly became so valuable and why it has become such a big controversy, you have to go back to the old saying I started this article with. Ever since the days of cable TV, people had the option to either pay for content or watch it for free, but at a cost. You had to watch a whole lot of ads.
Now there is nothing wrong with that model per se, no business is going to just give you free stuff. Businesses are not charities. So as a fair barter, to recover the cost and make a profit on that favourite drama serial that you watch for free, channels approach advertisers and sell them their product… YOU!
They share statistics on the kind of audience they have and each advertiser, if it suits them, places their ads with them. All this is good and fair while you are an anonymous statistic… a Mrs X, aged 25 to 30, living in an urban city in Pakistan with a household income of Rs 100,000 or more monthly, etc.
Problems started with the advent of the digital age when new-age channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc) started getting access to absurd levels of in-depth data about their viewers. I am now no longer an anonymous vague demographic. Facebook knows my name, age, where I live, where I studied, where I worked and where I am working now. Not only that, it knows who my friends are and that I took two of them recently to Waheed Kabab House at Burnes Road. It knows that while there I had their fabulous fry kabab and rated them 4.7 out of 5 even though I overate, got an upset stomach and checked into South City the next day where I gave the hospital cum 5-Star hotel a 3.8 rating for their coffee.
Armed with this dangerous knowledge, Facebook can now sell me (remember that I am the actual product Facebook has. I am what they sell to advertisers to make money) to all kinds of advertisers who will try to sell me things that can fix my upset stomach and also possibly refer me to a few psychologists to help me better manage my cheat days.
The question now is, how far are we going to play along with this? I am sure you have heard of Cambridge Analytica, a UK based company that helped conservatives spread falsehoods and rumours to help Trump win the last election. Cambridge’s CEO was even caught boasting that he set up prostitutes and bribery sting operations to discredit liberal politicians. All this false advertising found great success based on personal data from Facebook. The company of course claimed that they were duped into giving away that information.
We need to seriously question how much right these platforms have to use our data and what ethical boundaries they are drawing to share it with various third parties. Where would you draw the line? Basic demographics? Your financial information? Your medical history? Remember you can’t just say you won’t share. You have to. That is how we started this conversation. Either you pay for the product (a subscription fee for your favourite TV drama serials) or you are the product (your entire personal data up for sale to be used by anyone anywhere as they see fit).
With everything now going online, it is becoming impossible to not have your data digitised and with current social platforms and their policies, you are being forced to share that data or stop using the platforms. As an example, you may think that Facebook and Twitter are frivolous activities so people should just abandon them. Perhaps you think we need to just maintain a LinkedIn account on a professional level... because everybody has a career that earns them a livelihood right?
Well, you will be surprised to know that LinkedIn Corp has been caught using dubious means to grow its community through false advertising of its platform. In the famous case, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) caught them when they found that network connections being suggested by the platform seemed almost uncanny. When they dug further, they found out that the platform acquired personal emails for 18 million people who were not registered with them, without their consent, and used it on Facebook advertising to subtly suggest that all the people in your immediate circle are on the platform leaving you with a feeling of being left out. Ireland’s commissioner eventually forced LinkedIn to cease pre-compute processing and to delete all personal data associated with such processing before May 25, 2018.
These are just cases that have been caught. Russians trying to turn American election results, India trying to run a digital smear campaign against Pakistan targeted at specific decision making audiences globally... Forget nuclear weapons, all of these dangerous trends have found success based on an engine that is driven by our data. The powers that be are now waging a communications war and we are arming these people to do these terrible things to us because we are not taking privacy seriously.
To sum up my argument, I agree that there will always be an audience that would want to watch content for free. I am one of those people myself. I also do not mind watching a few ads if I have to not pay for that content. But I and people like me now want governments to take on these giant platforms (because only they have the muscle to do so) and to restrict them to the kind of personal data they can use and how they should use that data.
There should be ethical regulations regarding the kind of advertising on social platforms because they have become a powerful tool in the hands of unscrupulous individuals. Extremely personal details are shared with these dubious advertisers. Every generation has its battles, and the battle for privacy, ladies and gentlemen, is the battle of our generation, lest we all descend into chaos, has started already.
Do you agree? Have an alternate point of view? Share your thoughts with me as I explore these wild new digital frontiers.
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, Skale Interactive and Kueball Digital. email@example.com