Web Matters

I am sure you all know that Facebook bought Whatsapp for however many billion dollars this week.

Is it too much?  Does the fact it was mostly paid for with stock that looks over valued mean it is effectively a lesser price tag?  Will Whatsapp start posting adverts? Maybe, but who cares, none of those questions are of much concern to me.

What does matter?

I am amazed that Facebook are allowed to consume anyone they like, removing anything that looks like competion.

I am bemused that so few of us seem to have noticed, let alone care, let alone challenge the idea that a handful of companies dominate our daily interactions with the internet, that something designed to be decentralised nows sees information and power concentrated in so few hands.

I am astounded that the Whatsapp debate focusses on the price, FB’s access to new markets and whether they will succumb to placing adverts on Whatsapp.

The reality:

FB will mine your Whatsapp contacts and correlate them. Personal conversations indicate really strong connections.  They represent hugely valuable pieces of information.  Think about it, how many people are you connected to on FB and Twitter etc? Lots I am sure. Then compare that to the number of people you routinely message or even email through your personal email account.   Many fewer for most of us.

FB will mine your Whatsapp conversations,  machine reading them, inferring your location, preferences and intentions.  It will securitise that and sell it.

Whether the resulting adverts appear on Whatsapp is a sideshow, the securitised data about us that we so casually give away, will ensure they appear creepily on your FB stream, in your clunky old email and possibly even on your TV. Your TV likely has a hard drive, that likely already contains adverts targetted at you specifcally but in some clunky way. Don’t be surprised if in the near future, a conversation you thought private about some trip or intended purchase is followed by eerily precise adverts that just happen to dovetail neatly with your plans.

You might be fine with all that.  Its the price you pay for all that social media being free, and some carefully targetted adverts might be quite useful.

Then again, you might not have the faintest idea what is actually going on.  Personally, I just want to own my own identity and choose what gets done with it.

I have just joined Tim Berners Lee’s campaign, “The web we want”.  I don’t usually do that sort of thing.  There are elements of that movement I am unsure about, some factions are moving towards encryption, which I suspect to be counter productive. But then, I rather think that this debate matters.

Try the blog here: https://webwewant.org/the-decentralized-web/

What do you think?


8 thoughts on “Web Matters

  1. Hmm…this one’s a tough one. The free market vs the free internet. You could argue that the internet is just one canvas on which this sort of behaviour is being played out, yet the world over our data is being mined by huge multi-nationals and sold on to the highest bidder. Tesco springs to mind, although almost every internet retailer is also up to it, big and small. How do I know ?

    Well, I own a domain name (manorwalk.com) and, whenever I register to buy something from the internet, I use an email address which is a concatenation of the site plus my domain name e.g. amazone@manorwalk.com or wiggle@manorwalk.com. That way, it becomes blindingly obvious when I get unsolicited email or spam where it originated from since the “To” will be the site that sold my data on. And believe me, it ain’t the big boys that are guilty here.

    Your other point about your data being yours is also interesting. I hosted a forum recently of millennials who don’t see it that way. They’re more than happy to give away pretty much everything about them, and this is not just a select few – it’s the norm. This is the generation coming up behind us who are also probably the heaviest users of Whatsapp. (Interestingly, my daughter, who is 11, thinks Facebook is for grannies and has no interest in it, as do none of her friends. Snapchat, Whatsapp and Instagram is where it’s at with the generation behind the Millennials, whatever they’re called.)

    One other angle on this. I recently attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The hall with the biggest growth and interest was “wearable computing”. These are the Fitbits, Jawbone UPs, Withings etc of this world. Now, these devices not only track simple stuff like where you are, but very personal stuff like your weight, blood pressure, sleep patterns, food you’ve consumed, calorific intake and exercise. MUCH more personal stuff. And this is a market forecast to be worth $6bn by 2015. Do you think the users of such technology consider that level of personal data to be at risk ? Nope. They use it to become healthier which is probably a good thing on the whole. And then there’s stuff like Nest which saves you energy and saves the planet. And devices that prevent epilepsy in the home that your doctor can monitor. And devices that your doctor can use to administer insulin to you in your home, even if your home is 100 miles away from the surgery. I could go on, but you get the point. It’s data put to very good purposes.

    Data is becoming, if not already is, the currency of life. It’s everywhere. It’s unavoidable. And it’s not ONLY in the hands of a few internet companies like Facebook and Google. It’s in the hands of the company you work for, the company I work for, the company you buy your groceries from, the company where you get your car serviced, your doctor’s surgery, etc. And ALL of it tells you something about YOU. Sure, it’s open to huge amounts of abuse but, frankly, I think that box has been opened and will never be closed again.

    So here’s an interesting perspective. I work in the media industry and I’m running a forum soon involving both internal and external people on what the media industry will look like 10 years from now. One point I will argue is that our data will become the currency by which we will pay for our media. Want to rent (nobody will buy, and the internet will always be on, so there’s no need to download) the latest movie ? That’ll be my last week’s Google+, Facebook and Whatsapp data thank you very much. I firmly believe that balance will tip in favour of the consumer in the next 10 years. It will be the next generation of Bitcoin.

    Still want to keep all your data to yourself ?

    (Apologies to all the readers expecting pithy, witty and downright absurd commentary on Anthony’s blog. Normal service will be resumed next time.)

    • Hi

      An interesting response.  I agree with most of what you’ve said, but there is a gap. It is about having the right to choose. In the extreme, choice can be a tyranny, I like to keep mine simple and few, but I insist I make them.

      At no time did I say I wanted all my data to be private. That would be ridiculous.  One of my central points is that it is my data and therefore I’d like to control when it is private and when it is public.  I would often choose for it to be public. I’d just ike the right to choose. 

      As to my data being a currency, that is a good point.  However, I’d like control over what, when, how it is spent on my behalf.  If I have to spend more traditional currency to achieve that control then given the choice I will do so.  e.g. I will give FB a few dollars per month in return for how it spends my currency.  Again this is about choice.

      Are we saying these companies are like banks? You know, altruistic people who can be trusted to look after our currency and manage it on trust, certain that greed and short term thinking won’t get in the way? 

      I would also like a choice in the market so I can decide who spends it on my behalf and who doesn’t.  The free market is my natural estate but only until monoplies assert themselves.  I take your point that there are lots of big data players, but some specific markets are monopolised. Online advertsing is dominated by Google, Friendship by FB, Professional connection by LinkedIn. I can think of no other market where this would be tolerated.

      Do I think people who have shared health data think it is at risk? No, do I think they have properly thought about it and realise they’ve effectively given it away? No. Should they, yes, especially health data. 

      As to millenials who’ve grown up thinking all this normal, that is not a rational argument, it does not make their view right or good. It is our job as crusty old folk to seek to embrace the new while pointing out things they’ve simply not considered, to challenge.   In this case, to encourage them to think and make conscious choices.

      Do you really think that the removal of choice is right?

      • Choice is, of course, paramount to this working properly. Tesco cannot (and should not) use your Clubcard data without your express permission according to their terms of service. You agree to them, and their use of your data, and in return they give you free Persil. Facebook and LinkedIn are no different. When you first signed up, you agreed to their terms of service and, in doing so, agreed for them to use your data. Now, you don’t get free Persil with Facebook and it is probably unclear what value you DO derive from it, but you’ve chosen to allow Facebook to use your data nonetheless. Same for LinkedIn. Google is an interesting one. They provide a drastically richer experience if you choose to sign up for a Google account and have it running in the background, logging your browsing history. But you don’t need to to use Google. And, in fact, you don’t need to use Google at all.

        The currency discussion is one that I’m getting increasingly interested in. What starts with Bitcoin can quickly turn into something much more accessible, and to more than just those with a penchant for late night pizza and Babestation.

        Where I think you have a point is that it is not exactly easy to choose public vs private. I work with somebody who is the extreme of the latter. They have NEVER bought anything online (and I mean NOTHING, EVER), don’t have any social media accounts (at all), don’t use credit cards and pay cash for everything, even white goods from John Lewis and their weekly shopping. They are, to all intents and purposes, invisible to all of the tyrants you describe above. But that’s quite extreme and, I would argue, they are not benefiting from advances we all enjoy in things online. But, back to my point about choice. Yes, it’s quite hard to easily segregate between public and private. And also to know which data is in which category when it comes to agreeing what to share and what not to.

        Your point about millennials is interesting. We can guide them in the pitfalls of abandoning their privacy online but, I would argue, this is a bit like trying to convince them that Haircut 100 is better than One Direction. You simply won’t win, because you can never get inside the head of a 20 year-old. You can never truly understand how individuals of that generation think and operate and overlaying your 40 something beliefs and values on them will be largely futile. Our brains are programmed differently. I do believe they are aware of their choices, but their choices are simply different than ours and, because our wiring is different, we struggle with it and think because we’re “crusty” that somehow we’re wiser and better informed. Maybe we are, but maybe we’re not. What we, in positions of seniority CAN hope to achieve, is to lay a foundation with the companies they choose to interact with (e.g. Facebook) by which they can at least benefit from this gay abandon.

        So, here’s a suggestions. Let’s come up with the marketplace that converts our data into a currency. And then, when we’re successful and worth millions, we can sell our company to Google for $19bn. And then we’ll be back to square one 🙂

  2. Very interesting. I hope no one else reads this, we are going to be rich beyond our wildest dreams.

    The ‘I Agree” button is famously misnamed.  While it carries some legal weight (I am sure you know better than I quite how much though it seems to vary, and to be a little less binary than it appears) it really ought to say,

    “I Want” – and have no intention of reading let alone understanding this.
    “I have no choice” – even though I do, but that feels a poor choice, indicating exclusion from my culture and the immediate if sometimes superficial benefits of whatever it might be.

    As to millenials, it is fair to say that Haircut 100 AND One Direction are both dreadful. The current generation will mostly leave the latter behind but they will have given almost nothing away in the learning experience.

    The idea of a Preference Bank or a Choice Store is a very attractive business idea or perhaps a standard.  A place to store preferences.

    How about we make the I Agree button more of a two way negotiation.  

    My preferences are here:


    They are mine, I own them. Choicestore is like a bank. Perhaps we should insist it be regulated. Maybe we license it for use in each regulated jurisdiction.

    Based on that you want to charge me $5 for my FB account?

    How about you accept adverts for your stated preferences?


    How about we connect you to people who share your interest in running in your area?

    $0.5 as a one off charge?

    Ok, I agree…

    PS The Persil isn’t free, it is not even close to being free.  

  3. I’m not surprised that fridayfood was unable to generate a pithy response to this mind twister! Social media has snaked its way into our lives, bringing many benefits but an increasing number of pitfalls. I see some rebellion in my sphere against FB and other sharing sites, but it is difficult for most of us to avoid having a digital footprint – who doesn’t want to snap up a bargain on the Internet or arrange a night out with friends with the ease of social media? Pandora’s box has been opened and we will never be able to close it, but we would be foolish indeed not to take some precautions in order to protect our REALLY personal data. The web we want is a far cry from the web that we are heading for, and we are all to blame for making it easy to filch what should be ours alone.

    • I am more optimistic about our ability to retake some control in some areas and that once established that that control might grow.

      Barriers to entry are low and a service to manage preferences owned by those who hold then would not cost much to set up.

      The value of those preferences, even if only 1% of people the world over is quite high. 1% is a lot of people when applied globally.

      Can we put it all back into PAndora’s box, no. Can we create a new box with new rules. Yes.

      In another example, I look at threema, It is like Whatsapp but encrypted, it costs a whole £1.50, thats not expensive. I don’t really think I want to to go down the encrypted route, I really don’t mind the security services watching, as long as they are accountable, but the point is its a different business model, one in which I have to pay a bit more, but not much, not much at all.



  4. Love the debate guys. I don’t see FB and Google as banks. To use Fridayfoods ref to bartering, thats where we are with this in the evolution of the web/data/social. We are back in the days of swapping elephants for necklaces. We have data, google/FB want data. We want to smoke some social crack, they have it. Barter. Job done. But its subtly different to barter of yesteryear. We are not struggling to come up with 2 elephants to swap for the necklace when the purveyor of said necklaces only wants 2 halves of a coconut to fashion a makeshift bra. Sure, you could break the data down, but at a macro level, its a data for use exchange.

    The evolution is yet still early, so the banker with the promise of cash has yet to wash up on the shore of the island. I like the idea of trading our data/privacy/permission call it what you will via an independent, open entity. In fact i love it. Problem is, no one else will! But then, do they have a choice? The landscape today looks incredibly different to how it looked 15 years ago.It will look even more different in 15 years time, or even 10.

    I agree the power will transfer.

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