The Asian Voice

The lies of free sign-ups: Kathmandu Post columnist

The writer says there should be stronger regulations on internet security and data privacy as well as better data awareness amongst users.

The logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet.
The logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet.PHOTO: AFP

KATHMANDU (THE KATHMANDU POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - When I say browsing through any website isn't free, I don't mean the price you pay to your internet service providers or the price you pay for your electricity bill.

It's not even the price you pay to get hold of the electronic devices to access such accounts; instead, it's your data-your private information-which is sold; auctioned off to the highest bidder. Over and over again.

In the infamous hearing of Facebook's Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 when Senator Hatch had asked him, "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" Zuckerberg replied, "Senator, we run ads."

So, for the platforms which heavily rely on their users' watch time and click-through rate on ads to earn money, it is only logical for their business model to focus on what their advertisers want and how to market relevant ads to the users. Hence they use targeted ads. Targeted advertisements are done by marketers where the users get ads that revolve around their specific interests, traits and shopping patterns.

The websites run their ads specific to their users to benefit their "customers", who are the companies who buy the advertisement slots. In the Netherlands, a 2013 study showed that when a law was introduced that required websites to inform visitors of tracking in the advertisements, click-through rates dropped. So it is obvious why companies would use sneaky ways and abuse loopholes in the law to mine data.

With users sharing their personal data and the web cookies tracking every click of the users, the marketers have been able to tailor ads to each user according to their needs. Research shows that many people don't know that their data dictates the ads they receive.

Most of us have got ads of the products or services specifically when we need them. Researchers discovered that users perceive personalised ad content as more appealing and more connected to their interests.

Have you ever wondered how much information Facebook or Youtube, or Instagram has on you? How much information has Google stored on you and to what extent it keeps track of your search history and click-through rates?

Well, you can request a copy of the data these websites have on you. When I got curious about how much Google has tabs about my personal information, I exported my personal data from Google. It created a copy out of 46 products that contained 39.25 GB worth of data. Your privacy settings determine how much information you allow Google to access your browsing history and activity on related products.

Google keeps track and stores your location. Google has a record of every place you've been to (if your location tracking was turned on). I was shocked to find Google still keeping records of a random restaurant I visited on July 31st, 2015. It stores your search history across all of your devices, even the ones you have deleted. It knows all the apps you've used, every extension used. It has all of your YouTube history-likes, comments, searches and subscriptions.

So, based on the content you watch on YouTube, Google can figure out your personality, political inclination, religious stance, health data, and tastes and preferences on basically anything. Google Photos has access to all the photos you've taken through your phone. Much like Google, Facebook, too, keeps track of every message you have sent and people you've befriended or unfriended. It also keeps track of your log-ins or log-outs, the devices you have used, and the places you have visited. Even if you delete any piece of information, it just becomes invisible but never really disappears.

Inspired by Brian X. Chen's article in the New York Times, I downloaded the information that Facebook has on me. To my horror, I found out that they had 3.46 GB worth of data on me. I found a folder labelled "Ads_information". A section named "Advertisers who uploaded a contact list with your information" had an overwhelming majority of companies I had never heard of or interacted with. It also had an "Advertisers you've interacted with" folder that records every advertisement I've interacted with.

Chen further explains how brands obtain users' information. These include: Buying information from data providers like Acxiom and taking that information to Facebook to serve targeted ads. Brands use tracking technologies like web cookies and invisible pixels to collect information about your browsing activities. According to Ghostery, Facebook offers different trackers to help brands harvest your information, advertisers can take some pieces of data that they have collected with trackers and upload them into the "Custom Audiences" tool to display ads to you on Facebook.

After receiving a backlash, Facebook has limited the practice of allowing advertisers to target ads using information from third-party data brokers.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss but not when it's your data that is in danger. The "free services" that these companies provide us doesn't automatically mean we're getting fair compensation in exchange for our data.

As MIT Technology Review has put it, "have little idea how much personal data they have provided, how it is used, and what it is worth." If the general public were aware of viable alternatives, they might hold out for compensation for free.

In the same internet space where browsers like Gener8 Ads respect your choice to either limit your data collection or generate money from it, we are obligated to analyse whether Google has been selling our data in exchange for providing "free" services.

In a Harvard Business Review, Maurice E. Stucke wrote how "Data-opolies" have been depressing privacy protection below competition levels and collecting personal data above competition levels. (The Data-opolies consist of Google, Facebook, Amazon and similar companies who have minimal competition.) Stucke compares the collection of excessive personal data with charging an exorbitant price for a product/service. Since the companies have limited - or no- competition, they without a doubt have no competitive alternatives hence the bargaining power for the users is nonexistent.

These companies are also at a considerable risk of getting a security breach as the hackers have more incentives to hack such companies. The personal data of over 533 million Facebook users was leaked online in April 2021. This exposed the users' data for free, leaving the users vulnerable to data theft or impersonation.

When there should be stronger regulations on internet security and data privacy, Data awareness amongst users is necessary. So maybe next time you sign up for a website, you first at least skim-read the "Terms of Service", and the next time you click on "Accept Cookies", you first read what data you're willing to let the website track and collect from your browser.

  • The writer is an economic policy researcher. The Kathmandu Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.