Paul Gilster: Trading privacy for 'free services'

CorrespondentJuly 6, 2014 

I’m hearing more and more people complaining about the use of their personal information on the Internet. And for good reason. We’ve gotten ourselves in a position where the allure of free services makes us think we are receiving a tangible product for nothing at all. But in the case of many free sites – Facebook is an outstanding example – the product is us. What makes “free” work on the Internet is a company’s ability to use your content to make money.

Not that Facebook is alone. Google makes cash by studying our interactions. Gmail sends me ads when I check my email because Google’s data mining software figures out what might interest me. That makes for highly targeted ads. I trade my privacy for the convenience of seeing items that are more likely to interest me. Many of us make this tradeoff, but the grumblings are getting louder, and something is going to give.

Consider this: When I go to to see what a friend is doing, I find a pop-up box asking me for information about my life, with questions ranging from my birthday to which high school I attended. None of this is particularly sensitive, but I don’t answer these questions because I consider them intrusive. For the same reason, I don’t post personal details about my life online because I only want to share that information with particular people.

When the European Union looked into these matters in a recent study, it found that privacy is a big deal for more than 90 percent of those surveyed, with 31 percent of people saying they would be willing to pay for it. I consider that a market niche that’s a mile wide. If you’re looking for ideas for the next great startup , think up better ways to allow people retain some anonymity while online. The company that offers a seamless online experience with privacy foremost will find a paying market.

Recently we learned that Facebook, whose privacy problems are a recurring discussion, had conducted an experiment on almost 700,000 users by manipulating those users’ news feeds. This means that the content you see after logging onto the site, which is cultivated by the various connections you’ve made with other users, was manipulated to mask certain emotional content. The aim was to find out whether people seeing positive news about other people were likely to become depressed out of a sense of being left out of all the fun.

The paper about this experiment, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that this worry is bogus. Manipulating news feeds in a positive or negative direction actually reinforced what the users saw. In other words, people seeing lots of positive news became more positive in their own posts, while those getting the happier content edited out became more negative. The study calls this effect “emotional contagion.”

The firestorm that hit the Internet when this study was revealed happened because people didn’t like Facebook experimenting on them without their consent. Informed consent counts – we are not lab animals running around in a maze. The paper’s contention that the study was consistent with Facebook’s data use policy simply reinforces the view that this company is clueless about privacy.

We give up a lot to use “free” services like Facebook. Maybe we need more emotional contagion, then, enough to create not just privacy apps but a parallel, private Web. We’ll pay for its use, to be sure, but that 31 percent figure I cited earlier is telling. The Internet is in for a seismic privacy correction, and as far as I am concerned, it can’t come too soon.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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