Valuing data: the price of opting out

5 min read

Georgia Iacovou

26 Nov 2019

Is the cost of refusal greater than the cost of participation?

Here’s something we must understand about free platforms such as Facebook: it is an ad network, designed to take in as much information about humans as possible, so it can thrive on a bed of behavioural data — in a lot of ways, this is a threat to our autonomy, because free platforms like this essentially profit from our private experiences.

Here’s the problem: Facebook is useful to a lot of people. So is Google. So is Amazon. But, is all the tracking and surveillance worth what they give us in return, even though many of these platforms don’t cost money to engage with? Is it worth it if you have to use one of these platforms to perform certain tasks?

The football team I play for in London uses a Facebook group to organise all it’s matches — many club members say they wouldn’t have Facebook if they didn’t play for this team.

So in this case, no Facebook = no football games for you. If your aim is to get access to football games, is the cost of refusal to use Facebook greater than the cost of participating in Facebook’s desire to track your behaviour?

Is the cost of refusal to use Facebook greater than the cost of participating in Facebook's desire to track your behaviour?

The choice between Facebook & Football VS no Facebook & no Football is relatively low stakes. What if I told you that if you refused to have your behaviour tracked and monitored on a day-to-day basis, the central heating in your house would be shut off?

The centralisation of power to big tech could make something like that very possible — Google acquired Nest (smart thermostats) in 2014, and have just acquired Fitbit. Amazon own Ring, the facial recognition doorbells. Facebook are about to launch a cryptocurrency, or, as they put it, a way to ‘bank the unbanked’. These large companies are trying to seep into every aspect of our lives.

Where is the value here? Do free platforms not do more to devalue our data if they are hoarding it, forcing us to begrudgingly rely on their services because ‘that’s what everyone else is using’. That’s right: you can’t connect with people on a social network if you’re the only one using it.

Let’s do an experiment: it’s possible you’re willing to give away more than you think…

…if the price is right. A few weeks ago I ran an experiment in the office where I asked people how much of their autonomy they were willing to sacrifice to avoid ‘refusal’. I posed this question three times, upping the stakes each time. The iterations went something like this:

☝️Iteration One

🙅🏻‍♀️Refuse to use free services with the understanding that your data will be under your control

🤝Accept the use of free services with the understanding that your data will flow all over the internet

✌️Iteration Two

🙅🏻‍♀️Refuse to use free services and live without being watched but life is less convenient: Expensive food, long lines, rubbish seats on the train.

🤝Accept the use of free services with the understanding you will be surveilled in many ways: walking in the park, buying stuff, catching the tube.

🤟Iteration Three

🙅🏻‍♀️Refuse to use free services and be socially isolated and cut off from businesses: talking to friends is hard, it’s nearly impossible to get a job, you can’t properly stream TV/movies/music. But you ‘get to choose’ what to use to get these things done.

🤝Accept the use of free services with the understanding that you are bound to them with no other alternative choice: you must eat this food, you must use this job board, you must talk to friend through these channels.

Employees of Company had to choose one side each time: refuse or participate. 70% chose to accept the use of free services in the first two iterations. By the third, the split was 50/50. For most, this decision was nearly impossible, and my fellow colleagues hated me for making them choose. When making his choice for iteration two, Harry said this:

‘I don’t care if they can see what I’m doing in the park — I’m not that interesting’. Harrison Lucas, engineer at Company.

Harry doesn’t care about anyone watching him while he walks around a park, because to him his activities are completely inconsequential and boring (Harry is pretty boring, to be fair). His assumption is that the entities gathering this data feel the same way about it as him (they don’t) or the surveillance is for nothing more than the thrill of spying (it’s not).

What at first seemed like a threat to your privacy, has transformed into a complete lack of freedom.

By the time we get to iteration three of this little in-office poll, you realise that what at first seemed like a threat to your privacy, has transformed into a complete lack of freedom. Sure, you have everything you need, but you sort of have no choice.

When writing about regulating the internet, I had previously made the argument that we as a community are happy to reap the benefits of free platforms because we are not aware of the extent of surveillance that makes these platforms possible.

The Company workforce is not necessarily a good representation of all internet users world-wide (maybe one day?), but it was interesting to see that a lot of us were so willing to have their behaviours tracked.

This is most likely because the other option was something they were not willing to engage in: a more expensive, less convenient — and even socially isolated — life. No one wants that; we all just want to get on with our lives without every simple task being a painful struggle.

Why can’t we have that, without the seemingly needless tracking, continually hijacking our private experiences? Maybe we just don’t value our data enough…

Watch this space for part two of this article ✨

the author

Georgia Iacovou

Content Writer