One fine day, we all woke up and were told that Facebook sold our data to Cambridge Analytica and then they made dastardly profiles of us to target us with advertisement and political propaganda, so, we made a beeline for #DeleteFacebook. The most surprising part about the expose is how much of a non-event it is. We have been warned, at least since the Edward Snowden revelations, if not earlier, that our data is the new oil, coal and gold. It is being used as a resource, it is being mined from our everyday digital transactions, and it is precious because it can result in a massive social engineering without our consent or knowledge. Ever since Facebook started expanding its domain from being a friends-poke-friends-with-livestock website, we have been warned that the ambition of Facebook was never to connect you with your friends but to be your friend.
Time and again, we have been told that the sapient Facebook algorithm remembers everything you say and do, anticipates all your future needs, and listens to the most banal litany of your life. More than your mom, your partner or your shrink, it’s the Facebook algorithm which is interested in all your quotidian uselessness. It is not the stranger who accesses your post that should worry you. The biggest perpetrator of privacy violations on Facebook is Facebook itself. There is good reason why a company that offers its prime products for free is valuated as one of the richest corporations in the world. The product of Facebook – it has always been known – is us.
Why, then, are we suddenly taken aback at the fact that Facebook sold us? And while we are sharing our thoughts (ironically on Facebook) about deleting our profiles, the question that remains is this: How much of your digital life are you willing to erase? Because, and I am sorry if this pricks your filter bubble, Facebook’s problem is not really a Facebook problem. It is almost the entire World Wide Web, where we lost the battle for data ownership and platform openness more than two decades ago. Name one privately owned free service that you use on the internet and I will show you the section in its “terms and services” where you have surrendered your data. In fact, you can’t even find government services, tied up with their private partners, where your data is safe and stored in privacy vaults where it won’t be abused.
It is time to realise that the popular ’90s meme “All your base are belong to us” is the lived reality of our digital lives. As we forego ownership for convenience, as our governments sold our sovereignty for profits, and as digital corporations became behemoths that now have the capacity to challenge and write our constitutional and fundamental rights, we are waking up to a battle that has already been fought and resolved. A large part of our physical hardware to access the internet is privately owned. This means that almost all our PCs, tablets, phones, servers are owned and open to exploitation by private companies. Every time your phone does an automatic update or your PC goes into house-cleaning mode, you have to realise that you are being stored, somewhere in the cloud in ways that you cannot imagine.
It is tiring to hear this alarm and panic around Facebook’s data trading. Not only is it legal, it is something that has been happening for a while, most of us have been aware of it, and we have resolutely ignored it because, you know, cute cats. If somebody tells you that they are against privately owned physical property and are going to start a revolution to take away all private property and make it equally shared with the public, you would laugh at them because they are arriving at the battle scene after the war is over. This digital wokeness trend to #DeleteFacebook is the digital equivalent of that moment. If you want to fight, fight the governments and nations who can still protect us. Participate in conversations around Internet governance. Take responsibility to educate yourself about the politics of how the digital world operates. But stop trying to feel virtuous because you pulled out of a social media network, pretending that that is the end of the problem.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.