Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Google, Facebook and the nuisance of digital tracking 20 Nov 2019

Billions of people who use 'digital goods' that are seemingly free have to come face-to-face with the harsh reality of the phrase "there's no such thing as a free lunch." Willy-nilly, you are paying a price for signing up and using free online services either for personal or business purposes. All your activities on the internet leave digital footprints that are harnessed by individuals and organisations for ethical and unethical uses.  
One of the dark sides of the vaunted digital revolution is that your privacy is no longer sacrosanct. For instance, the over 50 million Facebook users who participated in a personality quiz in 2015 were unaware the information they provided would be exploited by Cambridge Analytica (CA). Following its investigation, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleged that Analytica "used false and deceptive tactics to harvest personal information from millions of Facebook users."

Facebook knew that CA had violated its policies by transferring the data it (CA) collected through the personality quiz. However, the social media company failed to report the misuse. The data was used to develop algorithms that targeted those Facebook users with disinformation ads during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In July 2019, after a year-long investigation, FTC fined Facebook $5 billion, a sum that is considered the largest penalty ever imposed on a company for violating consumers' privacy rights. The fine is separate from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s penalty of $100 million Facebook has been asked to pay as settlement for the data misuse.

Irrespective of the digital applications you use or websites you visit, by simply being online, you have become a target for behavioural targeting and profiling. Publishers and advertisers collect data on your web browsing behaviour to customize ads that you will receive when next you visit that platform or go somewhere else.

Google and Facebook dominate the global digital advertising market. According to eMarketer, a market research company, Google will remain the largest digital ad seller in the world in 2019. In 2018, Google’s total revenue, majority of which is from advertising, grew by 23% year-on-year to $136.8 billion. Facebook’s revenue, which is also largely from advertising, rose by 37% to $55.8 billion over the same period.  

Without a doubt, data collection for the purpose of enhancing user experience and product development may not be unethical. To achieve return on advertising spend (ROAS), advertisers also work with data sets that incorporate demographic traits, personal interests, past purchases, etc. to properly target advertising to consumers.

In today's world, where two-and-a-half quintillion bytes of data are created daily, per Forbes, big data is not only useful for analyzing and understanding buying behaviours; governments are also using it to improve public safety and prevent crime. The fourth industrial revolution, characterized by the rise in artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning and internet of things is driven by data.

But part of the downside of the pervasion of the internet and big data is the unauthorized use of people's information even by entities with legitimate access to that information. For instance, it is inappropriate for Facebook’s algorithm to assume I know someone by simply looking at their profile. Unknown to me, Facebook will then suggest me as a friend to the person. By alerting the person in that way, it is a potential violation of my private activity.

Every message or file you have ever sent or received; all the contacts in your phone; all the devices you have ever used to access your Facebook account are archived by Facebook. Google keeps records of everything you have ever searched – including all the information you deleted. Google knows every location you visit. Every YouTube video you have ever searched for or viewed is known by Google. Google knows what apps you have installed on your phone. If you buy a new device, Google will suggest you install those apps from your previous device. This is the apotheosis of digital tracking.

I doubt anyone would sign up to this level of tracking. Dylan Curran, a data consultant, writing for the Guardian UK, said ironically, "We would never let the government or a corporation put cameras/microphones in our homes or location trackers on us. But we just went ahead and did it ourselves because – to hell with it! – I want to watch cute dog videos.”

The deluge of online adverts has become intrusive and offensive to a lot of people. A recent YouGov poll shows 51% of Americans consider targeted ads to be an inappropriate use of personal data. A 2018 survey of American internet users conducted by Kantar Millward Brown shows 71% of respondents complained that online ads are more intrusive now than they were a few years ago.   

You would have someone to hold accountable for breaches of your privacy if you were only exposed to these tech companies, publishers and advertisers. But there are also data brokers who use web browsing histories to build profiles of people. These brokers then sell the profiles to other organizations who use them for ad-targeting and marketing. But even more insidious is that the ads you see online are not all harmless. A lot of them are used to harvest your information when you click on them. This is where ad-targeting becomes a surveillance tool, or even worse.   

One way people are fighting against the increase in ad-targeting is by installing adblockers. Last year, Germany’s Supreme Court made a ruling that upheld the right of internet users to block unwanted advertising online. Unfortunately, ad blocking software might protect internet users from pesky digital ads; but there is still the big challenge of how to handle the digital tracking that is done by entities like Facebook and Google, which are leveraging users’ information to increase their influence.

While we acknowledge that these companies are facilitating the sharing of knowledge and promoting free speech, they should be held to higher accountability. The sanction by FTC effectively reduces Mark Zuckerberg's powers to make privacy decisions unilaterally, by vesting that responsibility in a newly-created privacy committee. Then, last month, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said it was suing Google for misleading consumers about its collection and use of personal location data. This should be a lesson to Nigeria, which still lacks a coherent consumer data protection legislation.