But Kirkpatrick was dead wrong; the wind from Silicon Valley had shifted long before we learned of “Prism”or „Boundless Informant,” and with it our attitudes had shifted too. While the Lords of Silicon Valley begged for public sympathy pleading coercion, and most of us sat stupefied, trying to reckon with the implications of the Guardian’s revelations, it was easy to overlook some big facts. Our trust in these companies had already been diminished or destroyed.
This erosion of trust is material, and it was accomplished by the Lords themselves, without any assistance from the NSA. They had debased their most essential value — the sanctity of the user experience, the notion that they were, at bottom, on our side. We had thought that because we owned our devices, we also owned the content that we produced with them. But when Google, Facebook, and many of the other companies needed more profits, the easiest way to make money was to sell our data on to advertisers and retailers who could track and target us to increase their sales of diapers or lawnmowers or diet pills. We owned the devices, but they owned the servers. They won.
A System Mistrusted
By 2010 Google was secretly sweeping up personal data from our computers as they mapped the streets. In 2012 Facebook executives announced at their New York Marketing Conference that “brands are people too.” They touted enhanced Facebook pages „just like your other friends.” More troubling, the company began allowing marketers to target ads at users based on the email address and phone number listed on their profiles or their surfing habits on other sites. They were also enabled to follow users outside the Facebook network, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The new digital companies first became rich by putting their users at the center of the universe. But rather than the difficult creative work entailed in building on this new approach to capitalism, they capitulated to the easier money of the old adversarial model. No longer exalted end users, we were demoted to data entry clerks, delivering content for them to hawk. We work for them in much the same way that we now work for the airlines –– analyzing flight times, inputting reservations, checking ourselves in, printing our boarding passes...all unpaid labor. We are the natural energy source that keeps many of the digital companies growing and profitable, like running water by a mill wheel.
Our hunger for information, connection, and convenience is so great, that most of us decided to live with the new digital quid-pro-quo, at least until a better option comes along. But few are happy about it. In a 2012 Harris Poll, only 8% of Americans considered social media companies to be honest and trustworthy, lumping that industry with only four other long-standing pariahs that garnered less than 10%: tobacco, oil, managed care, and telecoms. Polls suggest that Europeans tend to be even less trusting of the Internet and social media than Americans.
Germans are the most skeptical, with the strongest privacy protections in the EU. While Facebook is growing in many countries like Indonesia or Brazil, it has peaked in others. A recent Pew Internet report shows that most American teens are leaving Facebook for a variety of other sites that offer a more private experience. The Lords of Silicon Valley succumbed to the old dream and trashed their birthright. The NSA only amplified our sense of their corruption.