TED, Googlephobia and the new Imperialism

Yesterday evening, I gave a talk at TEDxWarsaw on my particular breed of Googlephobia. Through the talk I told a cautionary tale about the silent siphoning of our most valuable assets – our behaviours – by the internet’s imperial superpowers and how this translates in our daily lives. The talk received a fantastic response, and I received a flurry of tweets afterwards directing me to various websites by people who shared my concern. I am by no means a refusenik, but without clarity and choice, the company that has cradled us through our early internet days will lose our trust.

The main parallel between Google, Facebook, their compatriots and the fight for the Americas in the sixteenth century: false exchange. The internet giants, like England, Spain and France in their hay day, are conquering billions of people. There may not be death and bloodshed in the same proportion, but there is one major casualty, which some argue is already a cold corpse: privacy.

An early adopter of all the major technological innovations of the past 25 years, technological advancement is not something I am against. But I am deeply concerned about the implications that the exchange of our personal data has for us as human beings. Nick Pickles argued the case very eloquently at Advertising Week Europe this week: people need to make informed consent of the exchange they are making. A Facebook profile can give over 400 pieces of information about an individual to marketers; information almost literally worth its weight in gold to them ten years ago.

To return to my [Brave] New World analogy, our exchange of information for services is not unlike the first European settlers giving Native Americans glass beads in exchange for gold. Dazzled by the unusual form, they handed over their precious materials willingly, thinking it a reasonable exchange, unaware of how such exchanges would help fund the demise of their people. I’m not saying that we will meet our ends as a result of these exchanges, but it could certainly limit our personal liberty and lead to behavioural homogeny. The knowledge that we are constantly being monitored discourages, if not actively limits, dissent.

The powerful should be surveyed, made transparent, accountable. The meek, by contrast should be given the privilege of privacy – or at least the knowledge and the option to choose whether they consent to the exchange or not. The power balance is inverted, however, and as ever, the powerful are able to hide behind protocol and the law, whereas Joe Bloggs is monitored to the point that Google and Facebook know the minutiae of his life, from what soap he uses to his sexual tastes. If we are going to give over this information, much of it sensitive, we should be aware of exactly what we are giving over, have the option to view what is stored, and should certainly be given the option to opt in or out. The MD of Google UK/IE at Advertising Week Europe this week was challenged about why Google do not pay people for the information that they harvest from them. He responded that Google provide a host of wonderful services for free. Surely there should be a subscription model then by which we can opt out of tracking?