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:
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?
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
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].
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®ion=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].