Moreover, what Facebook has acknowledged doing in this case (here's a thorough curation of the situation by GigaOm's Mathew Ingram) is just one example, albeit extreme, of how it and all other major Internet services treat their users: We're “lab rats,” as so many commentators have put it so succinctly this week.
And both of those realities go to the heart of an issue that gets more urgent every day: the rapid re-centralization of our communications and technology, a trend that threatens the Internet's promise. Which goes back to the first point: in lots of ways we're willing, if short-sighted, participants in a process that will almost certainly lead to an Internet that keeps us in a cage.
All Internet services of any size do a much less creepy, and in most ways quite legitimate, version of what Facebook did: A/B testing, showing different users different content and measuring users' responses. For example, a site might test to see whether bigger headlines work better than smaller ones, and adjust accordingly. There can be mutual benefit – the user gets a better experience and the company gets a better customer (or user to sell to advertisers). That's a long way from outright tampering with emotions, however. And Facebook's billion-plus users are a long way from almost every other web service.
The main worry about Facebook's endless efforts to learn everything about us and then sell what it learns to others is the company's reach and power. There's never been anything like it, with the possible exception of Google, which is no less relentless to learn, store and use everything about everything. In case you missed it last week, Google made clear its intention to be what amounts to the digital operating system of our physical lives – in our offices and homes, on the road and literally in our bodies – an all-encompassing machine that captures, stores, massages and sells what it learns and figures out about us.
But where are these companies getting all this information? From us. They're offering “free” – a world that should always be in quotes in this context – services that we find enormously convenient and useful. In return we're giving them often intimate knowledge of our lives. And we're contributing, rarely thinking about it, to the slow death of what the Internet was meant to be: a highly decentralized network of networks where key innovation and, just as important if not more, basic liberties emanated from the edges of the networks, not the center. Keep in mind how governments love centralized communications, which make spying on us so much easier. It's no coincidence that access to the Internet is relentlessly centralizing in the U.S. and elsewhere, via wired lines and mobile, and the carriers – which make Facebook look good by comparison – are relentlessly asserting a right to decide what information will get to us in what order and at what speed, or whether it will arrive at all.
Again, the centralized services are beyond tempting to use, even when we have choices. Who hasn't checked Google Maps lately? I'm using it to good effect this week in Germany, where I just spoke at a conference.
But while we're handing over so much information to these services – in effecting pouring our lives into their ever-expanding databases – they are almost completely opaque about how they handle that data. Facebook is happy to say it's been manipulating news feeds for some time now, and Google is happy to acknowledge a continuing evolution of the algorithms it uses to determine search results. But ask them exactly what they're doing, and the answer is “Forget it, junior, that's proprietary.” The reason given for this, at least by Google, is to thwart spammers and other malefactors, and there's clearly some truth to that; but the lack of transparency among these giants is at the very least troubling.
I don't use Facebook much for several reasons, only one of which is my worry about the centralization trend. The other, more immediately practical, reason is simple: the company persistently demonstrates its untrustworthiness, a quality that should chill everyone given its enormous power. Facebook has cynically mastered the adage, usually attributed to computing pioneer Admiral Grace Hopper, that it's easier to apologize than get permission. As the New York Times' Mike Isaac notes, Facebook is “very, very good at saying sorry.”
Yet Facebook has become an almost unavoidable presence – a colossus without precedent that, for many people, has become (they believe) indispensable. In some countries, where mobile communications dominate, Facebook is trying to literally be the Internet, by making deals with telecom operators to offer “free” data to mobile users as long as Facebook is their entry point.
But can we trust Google, or Amazon, or Yahoo, or Microsoft, or any of these giant presences? I tend to trust Google more than not to be careful with the data it gets from me, but why should I believe that the executives who replace the founders some day won't have other ideas on what to do with the information? I shouldn't make that assumption, and neither should you.
This is one reason I'm actively working to reduce the footprint I leave with any centralized digital service, including Google. I use Gmail sparingly. I do web searches with the DuckDuckGo service; it's not as good as Google, but it's definitely good enough for most queries. I'm trying to use OpenStreetMap more often, as a counterweight to the commercial map operations.
What's lacking in a world of monopoly and oligopoly communications is accountability. There's almost none today, and the risks are growing.
I'm the last person to want regulation of the Internet. But unless the Facebooks, Googles, Amazons and a host of other companies get a lot more visibly ethical and transparent — or the rest of us wake up and decide their benefits aren't worth the risks — that's where we're heading. I would hate that. But as much as I hate saying this, I'm running out of alternatives.
Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy and promoting entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.