Topic 4: Corporate Social Media & the Dark Side of the Web

Do you ever get the feeling you are being watched? Well, the technologies utilised by businesses within social media might mean that you really are being watched. Substantial ethical issues are raised as a result, predominantly regarding privacy; social media may not be the safe haven many believe it to be.

The Bright Side:

It is important to recognise that corporate use of social media is not entirely disadvantageous, after all, it is popular for a reason:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LSol7zvkGI

With talk of ‘Big Data’ becoming increasingly common, relational data is gaining great precedence. Advocating for greater links between digital data, Tim Berners-Lee (TED, 2009) [see 6:00-7:34] describes the wealth and quality of information that can be accessed through these convenience- and experience-enhancing links. It is important to keep this in mind.


The Dark Side:

However, the video and Tim Berners-Lee overlook the user implications, which are substantial: 80% of internet users are concerned about their privacy (Schiller, 2010). As a result of tracking technologies such as ‘cookies‘, ‘Flash cookies‘ and ‘beacons‘ that are embedded within social media websites, every user action is traced and stored (see below for a summary). Businesses then pay websites for access to this data, so as to offer tailored advertising and predict market trends; and according to Sipior et al. (2011, p.11), over 25% of websites are willing to engage in such transactions. Sipior et al. (2011) argue that cookies, when combined with data from public records or censuses, can construct an almost complete profile of any user, thus implying compromised anonymity. Clearly, huge ethical questions emerge: should companies be watching your every move, especially when social media can be considered a private space?

Social media tracking technologies
Source: Author’s own diagram using Piktochart.

 

Further exacerbating these concerns is the nature of the methods employed to retrieve such data. ‘Unconscionable contracts’, as they are referred to by some (Peacock, 2014, p.7), describe the way in which users are typically unaware of the fact they are being tracked. This in itself is an enormous concern. Even in cases where users are aware, they have little choice but to continue their online activities, as the alternative involves avoiding web-browsing altogether (Chen et al., 2014). An impossibility for many.

Click here to see instances where I have encountered cookies within Facebook.

Given that there appears to be consensus over the deceptive nature of these tracking methods (Sipior et al., 2011; Peacock, 2014), it is no surprise that almost all internet users are concerned about privacy (Schiller, 2010). While I do not recommend a boycott of social media, I believe that greater consideration for individual privacy is essential to tackle these serious ethical questions, particularly amid an uncertain era of digital change and ‘Big Data’.

Word Count: 400

 

References:

Chen, M., Shiwen, M. and Yunhao, L. (2014) Big Data: a survey. Mobile Network Applications, 19: 171–209.

Peacock, S. (2014) How web tracking changes user agency in the age of Big Data: the used user. Big Data and Society, 1-11.

Schiller, K. (2010) Companies reacting to consumers’ views on targeted ads. Available from: http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/News/News-Feature/Companies-Reacting-to-Consumers-Views-on-Targeted-Ads-70271.htm [Accessed on 23 March 2017].

Sipior, J., Ward, B. and Mendoza, R. (2011) Online privacy concerns associated with cookies, Flash cookies, and Web Beacons. Journal of Internet Commerce, 10 (1), 1-16.

TED (2009) The next web. Available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_berners_lee_on_the_next_web [Accessed on 21 March 2017].

Vega, T. (2010) Code that tracks users’ browsing prompts lawsuits. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/technology/21cookie.html?_r=1 [Accessed on 25 March 2017].

YouTube (2015) How social media advertising works. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LSol7zvkGI [Accessed on 21 March 2017].

Supplementary Bibliography:

Greenwald, G. (2014) Why privacy matters. Available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/glenn_greenwald_why_privacy_matters [Accessed on 21 March 2017].

Kelion, L. (2013) UK jumps up internet scoreboard as digital divide grows. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24426739 [Accessed on 22 March 2017].

Kleinmann, Z. (2015) Who’s that girl? The curious case of Leah Palmer. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31710738 [Accessed on 22 March 2017].

Lanier, J. (2013) Who Owns the Future?. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ronson, R. (2015) How one stupid Tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Magazine&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article&_r=2 [Accessed on 22 March 2017].

Twitter (2014) Twitter abuse: easy on the messenger. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/24/twitter-abuse-abusive-tweets-editorial?CMP=twt_gu [Accessed on 22 March 2017].

YouTube (2016) Social Media Advertising. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC-tgFdIcB0 [Accessed on 21 March 2017].

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4 thoughts on “Topic 4: Corporate Social Media & the Dark Side of the Web

  1. Thanks for the post Brad. The issue of online web tracking is often overlooked by those not so technically inclined but your post offered good insight how users can be tracked online.

    In my post from topic 2 https://blog.nutron.org/2017/02/26/anonymity-is-endangered I investigated how users can be tracked online. In particular I would like to make you aware of Panopticlick, a service that can reveal just how much identifying information you leak when you browse the web. You will probably find that you are more unique than thought.

    Sometimes you just don’t have a choice when it comes to using a service and have to try to reduce the opportunity for tracking. What methods have you employed to combat online tracking? Have you tried using technical countermeasures like browser extensions or TOR or do you try to limit the information you give to online social networks?

    Jordan

    [150 words]

    Like

    1. Hi Jordan
      Thank you for your kind feedback, and for bringing Panopticlick to my attention. I haven’t yet made use of the service but it does seem like a useful tool for online users. Of course I always make attempts to limit the information I make available on my online profiles. While I have not tried extensive techniques like TOR, I do use one or two technical countermeasures such as adBlock and Ghostery (see my H5P content: http://bit.ly/2nmIlUt). The latter is most effective for my purposes, however through using this, I have personally encountered an entirely new ethical issue. Blocking tracking technologies often results in reduced functionality and poorer user experience, as certain links and pop-up windows may not operate as expected. Is this ethical? It all harks back to the issue of ‘unconscionable contracts’ (Peacock, 2014, p.7), and the fact we, in the pursuit for optimal and streamlined user experience, have no choice but to submit to these technologies sometimes.
      Brad

      Like

  2. tsk, screen output used to be one of the &#f;2028un” things to do back in the DOS days because there were sooo many ways to do it. It made the rest of the dreary project bearable.

    Like

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