In spite of the boring regularity with which Google and Facebook land themselves in scandals, how is it that these two internet giants continue to beat market expectations each quarter with revenues and profits only bound northwards?
The obvious answer is that both these companies have created a niche for themselves in the online media, Google virtually controlling the digital advertising spends and Facebook close behind with blowout numbers ever since it went public. While Google’s parent company Alphabet’s revenues rose 22 percent in Q4 of 2018, for Facebook the quarterly rise was 30 percent.
Well, that’s what these two 900-pound gorillas say about their growing numbers. Critics have been crying hoarse for a need to have a watchdog to monitor the activities of both Google and Facebook, given that every week there is some or the other scandal around them. Concerns about fake news and commercialization of consumer data have apparently fallen on deaf ears – both at the official level as well as with the millions of users who appear not to care.
How come they have consistently flown under the radar of users? For starters, none really understands what these two companies are up to. The few that do, have more important things to address in their respective lives. And the five that really care about the rules and ethics of digital world, the battle with these two 900-pound gorillas is as infructuous as throwing a stone to stop a rampaging elephant inside a circus tent.
So, what is all the fuss about the data that Google owns? For starters, it stores your location each time your phone is turned on. It stores search history across all devices, which means even if you delete it from one device, it stays in another device. It creates an ad profile of each user based on data shared such as location, gender, age, hobbies, career, interests, relationship status and possibly medical records based on medical purchases.
It also knows all the apps that one uses, has YouTube history, Google drive files, all emails ever sent or received by us, browser bookmarks, email contacts and much more. An individual’s records could be as big as 5 GB and could fill up a few million A4 size documents!
Now, let’s look at Facebook, which is faring as well, if not better. They store every message ever sent or received, every file, all the contacts on the phone, all audio messages ever sent, all data based on stuff that one may have liked and what one has discussed with friends, all the stickers ever sent and the location from where one logs into Facebook.
And it doesn’t end there. FB also has a records of all applications that one was coaxed into connecting with, the webcam and microphone data when you log into Windows 10, emails, calendar history, phone call history, the messages one receives and sends, the files downloaded, the games played, photos and videos, music files, search and browsing history and the radio stations that one has ever listened to in one’s life, post the first day one created an account on Facebook.
Are people kosher with offering all of this personal data to these two giants to milk without ever bothering to ask a simple ‘by your leave’? Privacy protagonists suggest that not boycotting Facebook and Google indicates total lack of information about what was happening with their data. Europe is taking the lead with the GDPR policy that seeks to establish the users as the owners of the data who can decide how it is then used. However, this is like the rather naïve belief that voters would cast their franchise differently if they understood issues better. One cannot get more condescending!
So, people do know what they’re getting into when they use Google and Facebook. It is an economic choice and not based on emotion or ethics. Many users are aware of options that exist for each of the apps that these two giants offer. But, more than the cost of operations, it is the labor of shifting to a new service provider that is keeping vast multitude of people addicted to the two companies who think nothing of wantonly using their data without rewarding them in any fashion.
Surveillance capitalism is a thought that came to fore in recent times. But, the fact is that people prefer free and surveillance over paid-for privacy. Anything that comes free comes with a price and the fact of the matter is that people are willing to pay a big price for not having to pay anything. Both Google and Facebook have managed to ride this belief to become behemoths in the digital world – a reality that would change only through some marketing mishap or a tectonic shift in human behavior.
And there’s no better place to place to set up a cheap laboratory than India, given that we thrive on freebies and digital security is nowhere likely to hit the front page anytime soon. With Europe already having them on their watchlist, China doing their own thing in these two areas and the United States offering little headroom for growth, India is clearly the preferred destination for Google and Facebook.
The question is will users continue to turn a blind eye to scandals? Will the government step in to sound the bugle? Or will it be left to the domestic industry to cry foul over the data storage being beyond Indian shores that will halt them in their tracks?
For answers, hit Google Search!