The testimony of Mark Zuckerberg and his cross-examination by both the Senate and the House Committees of the US Congress over data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica and other issues like the alleged Russian interference into US elections have thrown up some interesting questions. These proceedings are of as much relevance to the United States as they are in any other part of the world. The Facebook ecosystem, the Twitter world, Instagram domains, WhatsApp groups have been able to achieve is something unique in the evolution of human civilisation. They have been able to complement virtual sovereignty along with Westphalian reality. The Internet and social media platforms recognise no national boundaries and they have helped connect people even in the most adversarial geo-political realities, totally sidestepping passport, visa, immigration and border regimes. At the risk of repatriation may I reiterate that the Internet was the most audacious experiment in anarchy and it has succeeded beyond the wildest imagination of its creators? Today the Internet represents the largest ungoverned space on Planet Earth.
Never before in the history of humankind has so much power for free concurrently resided on so many fingertips. In the next two years alone 40 zettabytes of data will be created. The future of Planet Earth lies at the intersection of the brick and mortar civilisation that evolved over the millennia and the virtual civilisation being created stroke by stroke on the keyboards. Social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and millions of other websites are only the flora and fauna of the Internet. Underneath it lies the hardware — pipes, routers, mathematical codes, fibre optic cables and gateways, etc. In the absence of any agreed rules of engagement with regard to the Internet, the question arises: Is it fair to just go after the subsets of this ochlocracy? Is the targeting of Facebook a bit over the top? What these Congressional hearings really underscore is that there is no free lunch in life. Ever since the Internet got publicly operational in the mid or the late 1990s, the Internati have taken it for granted that this is a free ride. Free email, free social media, free newspaper sites and so on and so forth. Free ride on the dark Net is even more sinister. Such was the seduction of the freebies that no one paused to think as to how were all these services coming free when you have to pay for a postcard, a telephone call and a facsimile transmission?
How come these new economy companies had these humungous valuations? How were they paying establishment costs, salaries and dividends to their shareholders? Were advertising revenues sufficient to sustain such widespread global operations? The cost of these freebies was being paid by people in the form of biometric data, location data, lifestyle choices data, medical history data (the kind of diseases and cures that people search for online), sexual orientations/preferences data and myriad other data points that have unlimited uses targeted advertising being just one of them. Did social media companies then err in not adhering to the doctrine of “informed consent” before monetising all this data? The answer is yes. After all there are extremely profitable downstream businesses that are built around these data feeds. By way of example Twitter used to give third party access to Twitter fire hose that carried all the raw unfiltered data.
According to Ft.com lexicon the definition of a Twitter firehose is as follows: “A syndicated data feed of all the tweets sent — an estimated 500 million tweets a day — which Twitter’s data partners pay to get access to. Gaining access to the Twitter fire hose, or firehose, means gaining access to that feed. The data companies charge customers for analysis of the feed, from tracking trends in real time to analysing consumer sentiment towards particular products or advertising campaigns. Access is usually granted on a scaled commercial basis with applicants being charged a certain amount for access to a certain percentage of the fire hose. Nonetheless, improvements in big data analysis have ensured that there is growing demand from social media analytics companies for access to the fire hose.” This was the situation till April 2015 when Twitter pulled the plug on third party access to the fire hose and replaced it with its own application programming interface (API) protocols to augment its revenue streams even further.
Now why should all this gobbledygook concern you? If someone is making money out of your accesses to a free service that you are availing so be it. However, the question is what are they making their money from? Profiling, sentiment analysis — issues that animate you, data from your work-sleep patterns — what time does your social media activity commence and what are the rest periods, and maybe even what you consider are secure end to end encrypted messaging and conversations. They may not know what you are saying but they do know to whom you are talking to. As a former director of the CIA put it metadata is what we use for selecting targets for our predator drones. Federal Law Enforcement agencies in the United States have access to the Twitter fire hose through the new API mechanisms and other nation states would love to have the same. If therefore you do not mind being the emperor of the digital universe with no clothes on then it is another matter, otherwise right to privacy being a natural and an inalienable right all this should be enough to make you angry. However, then there would be a cost to this privacy. People will have to start paying for services they use on the Internet. That is why Zuckerberg alluded to a paid Facebook with a free version available to those who don’t care about privacy. Question: How many of us really do?