Since its inception, the Internet has become so ubiquitous that I believe many would be hard pressed to imagine what life would be like without it. Billions of dollars have been spent across the globe in order to develop the appropriate infrastructure so that the highest number of people can have access to this oasis of information. The platform has set the groundwork for an entirely new economy. Businesses now sell products exclusively online. Musicians have bypassed CD record labels and released their music directly to platforms such as Spotify. An entire new currency has emerged on the Web as well, drawing questions as to how it might fit into the world economy. E-mails have all but replaced physical letters. The primary role of the postal service is to deliver things we have ordered online.
The Internet is hailed as a free platform for information retrieval and dissemination. But I want to take a step back and ask you, how free is the Internet? Well let’s talk about the Internet that most people are familiar with. The main web; the one dominated by Google and Facebook. At first glance, these platforms seem free—in both meanings of the term. That is, they seem free in a monetary sense. They also seem “free” with regards to access to information. In other words, they appear to allow everyone equal access to information. But from my point of view, to describe these institutions in this way is wrong on both counts. And here’s why I think so.
So let’s start with the first version of the term “free.” The one concerning money. From where I’m sitting, Google is not free at all. My reasoning starts from a very simple question: how does a company like Google make its money? Based on stats from Statista.com, in 2015 Google made a whopping $16.3 billion dollars. Yes, that’s “billion.” With a B! How do they make this money if all of their products are free? As long as you have an internet connection, which itself costs any anywhere between $20 and $150 per month, you can make an account with their site at no cost in no more than five minutes. And yet they’re making huge, YUGE, sums of money. How? Well, companies like Google and Facebook make their money by selling your information. And they’re really good at it. Let’s go through the mechanics of this transaction and how this affects your everyday use of the Web.
When you make an account on Google, you are asked to give your first name, last name, birthday, gender, country of residence and your phone number. At this point, anyone who is used to making Internet accounts might give away this information without giving it a second thought. But as soon as you do, Google can start building a profile on you. If you are logged in while you use their search engine, they can link your searches to your profile and use it to get to know you. Using a complex set of algorithms, the company can use the information from your searches to determine what your interests are, whether you are liberal or conservative, from what socio-economic class you hail and what brand of deodorant you tend to buy. The information tracking doesn’t stop there. They even track which links you click and how long you spend on the website. And if you don’t have a tracker blocker, they can collect data on what pages you viewed within that website and how much time you spent on each page. The company then uses this information to strategically place advertisements on websites that you visit.
So let’s say you’re in the market for a pair of bell bottom pants. Being the crafty consumer you are, you type into Google, “Cheap bell bottom pants.” From there, you find some websites that sell some hot pants for under $10 bucks! Not only that, but the bottoms of those pants are so big, should you fall out of a plane, they could safely parachute you down from a 3000 foot drop. Awesome, you think. Disco Inferno, here I come! So you click “add to cart,” pay with your PayPal account, and you wait excitedly for your new pair of pants. To kill time, you go and read some movie reviews at TheNerdisTheWord. But, oh no!! There are ads for bell bottom pants everywhere! HOW DOES IT KNOW? Well, Google told them. Because Google likes to gossip more than Pam from Archer.
And because of your searches, Google was able to target you for Disco Corp.’s advertisements. In return, Disco Corp. pays Google a fine sum of money. Facebook works the same way. Every time you click “like” on a page, Facebook notices and adds it to your file. Based on the things you like, Facebook can guess what kind of products you like. So even if you didn’t SAY you like bell bottom pants, Facebook can guess that you do from all of those Discotheque pages you’ve been liking. So they assume you’re more likely to buy Disco Corp.’s pants. So in come the ads for disco pants. And this is why Facebook and Google are free.
Okay, so Google likes to use my secrets to sell me stuff. So what? They’re just being good shopkeepers. They need to make money somehow, so they can keep their search up so I can get free access to information online. Ahhh, but now we reach our second version of “free.” That is the liberty and freedom of information. Well Google is not quite as free as you think. You see, Google is a company. And they like it when you use their products. Those products include Gmail, YouTube, Google Docs, Google News and Google Scholar. As a result, if you’re looking for funny videos of cats, you’re more likely to see YouTube pop up near the top of the page instead of any other video-sharing site. Not a big deal, at first glance. But they also put their high-paying buddy’s websites at the top of search lists. For example, if you’re looking for cheap flights to Narnia, Expedia will come up first because they paid to be there. Does this mean Expedia has the cheapest flights? Absolutely not, but they paid to be the first thing you see because you’re more likely to visit their site that way. As a result, the competition gets shunned. And you miss out on information that might have gotten you a cheaper flight.
Lots of very smart people are currently debating over the ethical implications of these practices. I think it’s rather unfair that these guys get to use our information, without really diving into specifics about how they’re doing it. I’m also not a fan of having my search results warped based on a profile they have on me somewhere. But I know that not everyone might agree with me. What are your thoughts? Let me know down below. And as always, thanks for reading.