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Freedom from Data Driven Life - Metaphors Are Lies

Freedom from Data Driven Life

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The title is a wee bit hyperbolic, but there have been a couple of interesting regulatory developments that hint at better way forward for our digital lives. First, the Consumer Financial Protection Board has issued new regulations around data brokers. Second, and likely more important, the EU’s new Data Services Act has gone into effect. Neither go far enough in my opinion but both take steps to recognize the harm unfettered data control has done and continues to do to society at large.

The CFPB’s regulations are slight but easy to understand. Data brokers, companies that collect and sell every bit of personal information about you they can grab with or without your informed consent and then sell it to anyone — marketers, foreign governments, police agencies, etc. — will now be limited in how much and what kinds of data they can purchase from credit bureaus and prohibited from selling other kinds of data to anyone.

Among other things, the DSA requires social media companies to provide users with the option of a feed that contains only posts from people they have chosen to follow in reverse chronological order. Other kinds of feeds are not prohibited, and the required feed is not required to be the default, but now every social media site must show EU users every post form who they choose to follow.

These may seem like disconnected issues, but they are not.

Data, as the cliche goes, is the new oil. Social media companies make their money by selling your data back to you in the form of personalized ads. They collect your data, sell it to data brokers, who then sell it to advertisers, who then sell you ads on social media sites based on that data. Social media sites, in turn, use the data they know about you and purchase from brokers to feed you material that essentially pisses you off, material that you did not choose to see, so that you stay “engaged” on their sites and view more ads, making them more money and providing more data for them to sell. A vicious cycle that ends up making you, and by extension, our society, miserable.

These new regulations can slow this cycle a bit. By limiting the data that brokers can receive and sell, aside from the obvious good privacy implications, can make ads somewhat less effective. By giving people the option to opt-out of the anger inducing engagement feeds standard to most social media companies, it likely lessons the time spent, driving down profits, data collected, and increasing the general welfare.

None of these go far enough. Personalized advertising should not exist. It is primarily a cesspool of discrimination and uselessness, destroying privacy for the right to not be shown a job because you are female or to be followed around the internet by mortgage ads because you bought a house two years ago. Whatever tiny value it might provide is completely overshadowed by the various harms it allows. Police forces should require a warrant if they want your data — not a corporate card and an account at a data broker, for example.

Similarly, social media companies should be required to show you the content you asked for and only the content you asked for. There is no benefit to allowing them to conduct phycological experiments on users in the name of engagement. They can happily make recommendations about who to follow — they just should not be allowed to force those recommendations on you.

In both cases, the business model has almost no benefits and untold harms. In both cases, the business model deserves to be regulated out of existence. The fight to do so, given the money involved, will be long and hard. But if you want an internet that respects privacy, humanity, and basic autonomy this is the only route there.

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