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Facebook and Zuckerberg expand their search for new prey

The cost of using social networks and email services may usually come without a financial price but most of us are aware that the companies providing these services expect something else in return: our information. That these technological superpowers gather, analyse and, ultimately, monetise this data is no longer a trade secret.

In recent years, with the growth of these companies and their collective user base, more details have emerged as to the extent of their data collection. In the third quarter of 2014, Facebook claimed to have 1.35 billion active users (that is, those who have used Facebook in the last 30 days) while the number of active Gmail users comes in at a more modest 500 million. Respectively, these figures make up almost 20% and 7% of the earth’s population. Relative to the number of people with access to the internet (2.7 billion), that figure comes in at 50% and 18.5%.

Recent research commissioned by the Belgian data protection agency revealed additional information that indicated just how far these services reach into the lives of even the most casual internet users. The extensive report detailed how Facebook gathered information on the online activity of non-Facebook users and even those who explicitly opted-out of being monitored, with the latter having ironically had a cookie placed on their computer which allowed for their activity to be tracked for up to two years.

An earlier report commissioned by the Belgian data commissioner found that the company’s privacy policy was in breach of EU privacy law which requires that prior consent be given before issuing a cookie or ‘tracking’, unless it is necessary for either the networking required to connect to the service (“criterion A”) or for delivering a service specifically requested by the user (“criterion B”).

The same law requires websites to notify users on their first visit to a site that it uses cookies, requesting consent to do so.

Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice is set to decide on an Irish-generated case about the legality of the ‘Safe Harbour’ treaty, which allows the US arm of big social media sites to transfer data from the stringently regulated EU to the US, where it can finish up , as Edward Snowden showed, in the dodgiest of official hands.

The extent to which companies will go to gather data is reflective of its significance to them in terms of profit. More data equals more growth and so mining non-Facebook users for theirs, even given its occasional illegality, seems to be a step worth taking for Facebook. Interestingly, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are playing a major part in expanding the size of the world’s internet population through their Internet.org initiative.

In the extravagantly titled “white paper” announcing Internet.org, Zuckerberg stated his belief that “connectivity is a human right” and framed the motivation for its creation as humanitarian rather than profit-seeking in nature. It’s difficult to imagine that executives at Facebook wouldn’t have drawn up plans to see how they could potentially capitalise on their company’s penetration into untapped population-rich markets.

Internet.org isn’t the first multinational-driven tech effort to enable easier access to internet services or, indeed, the first by Facebook. Its Zero service allows users of specific mobile providers to access Facebook via a stripped-down version of its flagship product. Text can be downloaded free of charge but users must pay to access photos and video. It has been a highly successful initiative to the extent that a survey of online users in Africa found that a higher percentage of respondents said that they used Facebook than said they used the internet itself.

The Internet.org homepage greets visitors with the tagline: “The more we connect, the better it gets”, a statement which rings true from more than one angle. In an interview with Bloomberg, Zuckerberg was reticent when the subject of advertising on Internet.org was originally brought up, replying that he “[wasn’t] sure if it’s a big part of the solution in the short-term”. Of course Zuckerberg is so aggrandised that it is not clear for whom the solution is being sought.

Nevertheless when asked if that meant no advertising, he replied that “in a lot of these countries there isn’t a very big ad market yet, so it’s not that we won’t do it eventually”. Of course, once you have solid data on the market you’re selling to advertisers, those advertisers are likely to become more interested. The Internet.org initiative could therefore be seen as the firing gun to start the internet ad race in emerging markets.

Ultimately, Internet.org will continue to improve the lives of millions of people by providing basic internet access but it does not take a cynic to view the altruistic language of Facebook Zero and Internet.org as being somewhat disingenuous. Companies such as Facebook and Google exist solely on the back of their users’ data and, while the trade-off may be acceptable for all concerned parties, when companies are willing to go so far as breaking the law, it’s necessary to pay attention. •