Gongol.com Archives: April 2022

Brian Gongol

April 12, 2022

Computers and the Internet We won't sell your data, but we might sell the company

The emptiest of promises in all of the digital world remains "We will never sell your data". It's certainly a necessary statement -- far too many websites and vendors are willing to sell the data of individual users without their prior permission, and the resulting privacy violations begin with spam and escalate to much worse. ■ But the simple promise not to sell user data is profoundly incomplete, because it affords no meaningful protections if the service, site, or parent company is sold. Consider the vast one-time popularity of MySpace. It not only catalogued the social relationships of millions of users, it also was the first mass-market site to have the capacity to collect actionable intelligence on users and their habits, feelings, and preferences. ■ The test anyone who ever used MySpace needs to ask themselves is this: Who owns MySpace now? It isn't the ubiquitous "Tom", to be sure. ■ Since 2005, MySpace has been through the hands of News Corporation, Justin Timberlake, Meredith, and a NASDAQ-listed advertising company -- though none of those exchanges really looked like "selling user data" in the conventional sense. ■ What makes MySpace such a cautionary tale is not whether anyone retains an account there today. But literally billions of people are active, cumulatively, on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and other sites. ■ Facebook is almost wickedly transparent about how it regards personal data: "Specifically, when you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights on or in connection with our Products, you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content" (it's right there in the terms of use). ■ Note a couple of things about those terms: "Royalty-free" tells us implicitly that user content and data have value. If they didn't, royalty rights would never enter the discussion. And "transferable" and "sub-licensable" make it evident that Facebook thinks others might value user content, too. ■ Facebook's unintentional honesty about what it "owns", both from and about users, is a reminder that anytime we spill information into social networks (or indeed any digital platform), we are creating digital footprints that seem ephemeral but in fact have durable value. MySpace's copy of your "Top 8" friends from 15 years ago might not be worth much -- but then again, China's government has been out to mine every byte of data it can steal about unwitting Americans, so maybe it's not worthless after all. ■ And therein lies the rub: The drama was high at Twitter as Elon Musk bought more than 9% of the company, then touted his plans to join the board, then reversed course. ■ Musk's headline grab showed that ownership is the central matter. That demands more caution than has been widely shown up until now, whether among the estimated 80 million Americans using TikTok, a platform owned by a Chinese company that could easily be bent to the will of an authoritarian government, or among the two billion daily active Facebook users whose sole guarantee of prudential behavior is however Mark Zuckerberg decides to behave with his majority control over the voting shares in the company. Wherever we leave those digital footprints, someone has an incentive to go tracking.

Feedback link