Home > data science, internet startup, rant > Why the internet is creepy

Why the internet is creepy

August 3, 2012

Recently I’ve been seeing various articles and opinion pieces that say that Facebook should pay its users to use it, or give a cut of the proceeds when they sell personal data, or something along those lines.

This strikes me a naive to a surprising degree; it means people really don’t understand how web businesses work. How can people simultaneously complain that Facebook isn’t a viable business and that they don’t pay their users for their data?

People have gotten used to getting free services, and they assume that infrastructure somehow just exists, and they want to have that infrastructure, and use it, and never see ads and never have their data used, or get paid whenever someone uses their data.

But you can’t have all of that at the same time!

These companies need to monetize somehow, and instead of asking users for money directly, which isn’t the current culture, they get creepy with data. The fact that there are basically no rules about personal information (aside from some medical information) means that the creepiness limit is extreme, and possibly hasn’t been reached yet.

What are the alternatives? I can think of a few, none of them particularly wonderful:

  1. Legislate privacy laws to make personal data sharing or storing illegal without explicit consent for each use (right now you just sign away all your rights at once when you sign up for the service, but that could and probably should change). This would kill the internet as we know it. In the short term the consequences would be extreme. Besides the fact that some people would save and use data illegally, which would be very hard to track and to stop, places like Twitter, Facebook, and Google would have no revenue model. An interesting thought experiment on what would happen after this.
  2. Make people pay for services, either through micro-payments or subscription services like Netflix. This would maybe work, but only for people with credit cards and money to spare. So it would also change access to the internet, and not in a good way.
  3. Wikipedia-style donation-based services. This is clearly a tough model, and they always seem to be on the edge of solvency.
  4. Get the government to provide these services as meaningful infrastructure for society, like highways. Imagine what Google Government would be like.
  5. Some combination of the above.

Am I missing something?

  1. OpenFedGuy
    August 3, 2012 at 9:59 am

    The internet is creepy.. The internet is wonderful!

    Oddly, the thing you are missing is yourself. There is an enormous amount of internet activity that has little or no financial aspect. Your blog is a good example. You provide it for free with no aspirations (I assume) of commercializing it nor any plans to sell the data (I hope) or any other expectations that you will be financially rewarded for the substantial time and modest expenses of providing it. Wikipedia is a similar model. They do, as you note rely on some monetary contributions. Much more so, they rely on an enormous amount of volunteer labor. These sorts of efforts are wonderful. They have always existed but it seems to me that the internet has led them to expand greatly both in their extent and even more so in their impact.

    I am not claiming that this model can or even should be the only way that enterprises operate on the internet.

    I’m not denying the creepiness or the breadth of the privacy invasion of the Facebook/Google model. You are raising important issues and I agree the creepiness factor is very large and growing.

    One other aspect you are not addressing is people’s ability (or lack thereof) to defend their privacy/data. It is simple not to put stuff on Facebook (at, I suppose, a social cost). But how can we surf or shop without letting Google or Amazon make unwanted use of that information. I believe it is possible to some extent. It is an area that more focus (legally and technologically) should be given to.

    We are living with a “some combination of the above”.

    But, I think alternative 3 — essentially, free-form collaborative, volunteer efforts without commercial aspirations is more vibrant and sustainable than you give it credit for. We should celebrate it, participate in it, use it, support it.

  2. majordomo
    August 3, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Option #4 (or any combination of options incorporating #4) is completely out of the question!

    • August 4, 2012 at 7:37 am

      The good news is that alternative 3 already exists. It is self-organizational and, so far, unrevealed because its history has not yet been written. I know this because my own small contributions, such as the present note, are beginning to reach others.

  3. Dylan Thurston
    August 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    @OpenFedGuy, this blog only works as a volunteer enterprise because it’s fairly small scale and the hosting costs are low. If mathbabe got a bigger audience or if Cathy wanted to do fancier, more dynamic, web output, the monetary cost would become much larger. The Google and Facebook servers are not cheap…

  4. OpenFedGuy
    August 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    @Dylan: Wikipedia, Mozilla and others seem to make the large scale volunteer operations work. Yes, the costs and labor go up but if there is interest more people will pitch in. Eventually they have some paid staff and, as you note, significant expenses but they still are predominantly non-paid, non-financial models.

    I don’t have a measure of this kind of activity but my sense it is bigger than you might think.

  5. August 4, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    One small thing you’re missing is that Google had a very successful revenue model long before the internet was personalised. When a user you have never seen before searches for holidays, you can still show them profitable ads. The same goes for Google’s “put Google ads on your page” service which puts ads relevant to the content of the page, something you can do without having an personal info on the user.

    It doesn’t really change the core of your argument since a whole lot of the internet works as you say.

  6. Sara
    August 5, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Interesting post.

    Re “Wikipedia-style donation-based services. This is clearly a tough model, and they always seem to be on the edge of solvency.”:

    While this is probably how it seems to most people, I don’t think Wikipedia is actually on the edge of solvency. A bigger challenge (which is being met) has been to make sure Wikipedia has a broad base of donors so as to avoid being dependent on/beholden to a single donor or interest.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a contractor for the Wikimedia Foundation. Views expressed are mine alone.)

  7. Aethelwrod
    August 9, 2012 at 3:38 am

    There is no such word as monetize, I’m just writizing this to let you knowize. Perhaps you meant “earn”.
    When will Americans learn to use a fucking dictionary or thesaurus instead of just making new nonsense words up when there are probably 10 extant suitable words already!?

    • August 9, 2012 at 4:32 am

      It’s not just American’s who use the word, although it may have been an American that coined it.

      A constructive comment would include a better word to use and not just an admonition to use a thesaurus. Is that because you can’t think of a better word?

      While we’re at it, what’s a better word than magnetize because presumably we should never have started using that. How about colonize, another travesty?

      And as for “knowize”, that’s putting “ize” on a verb which makes no sense but of course if you picked some random known and put “ize” on the end it probably would have been in the dictionary…

  1. August 24, 2012 at 9:20 am
  2. August 25, 2012 at 10:40 am
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