Jun 1, 2010

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The rise of anti-social media

As we near the end of the first decade of the now not-so-new millennium we find that life is rolling along pretty much as before – despite the global fear and loathing about what might happen as a consequence of the Y2K bug. Remember the rampant fretting about aircraft falling from the skies, lifts that would hold passengers captive for weeks and myriad other frightful scenarios that simply never happened? All that worry for nothing. Still, it was no doubt prudent to take proper precautions and who can say what nasties may have been prevented by a proactive approach to risk management.

So, having learned not to be overly mistrustful, we settled down and just got on with our lives. For most of us not much changed though we have witnessed some extraordinary events from natural disasters to a black man becoming President of the United States to the Global Financial Crisis. That last one did shake-up most of us, though, and perhaps the global mood has changed somewhat. Largely, we  remain cautiously optimistic but many have tossed aside any glasses that had rose-coloured tinting.

Yet while some of the massive changes that had been predicted never came to pass, some things have had a dramatic impact on the way we live. Higher broadband speed and wi-fi connections have been a boon, there is finally a serious effort to mass produce less environmentally-harmful motor vehicles and sustainability has become a keyword in our vocabulary. The Internet’s influence on the way we live is ever more pervasive and has had arguably the most profound change in the way we conduct our lives

The rise of social media has been truly phenomenal. Who could have imagined Twitter a decade ago? Even many people who would never dream of using twitter now understand what a tweet is. So it is with Wikipedia, Facebook and Google. Ah, Google! How did we ever live without you? Surely Google is THE most fundamental change in the way we now live our lives? Each day that passes provides yet another example of information we can retrieve from this ubiquitous reference tool.  Any wonder we delve ever more frequently and widely to find – surprise, surprise! – just what we wanted to know?

It’s fair to say that many of us have clutched Google to our bosom, making it a trusted friend in our daily lives. How sad, then, that Google has betrayed that trust in the most insidious and frightening way. Through the mechanism of a fleet of cars which trawl residential areas for images of properties that can be accessed through its Street View service, Google has plundered our privacy. It has done so by eavesdropping those of us who use wi-fi internet connections and has siphoned-off an array of our personal data.

We don’t know just how much Google has stolen because it won’t say. We do know that the information is stored somewhere but, again, Google won’t say where. When this scandal was first revealed recently, Google resorted to spin doctoring and suggested it was all an inadvertent mistake. That is a fatuous lie as evidenced by the fact that Google has implemented this personal data theft in some thirty countries. The fact that it has actually stored the relevant data is also an admission of guilt. That it won’t say what it intends to do with the data is an absolute betrayal of the trust Google professed it wanted to earn from us. Bear in mind this is a company whose founding motto was ‘do no evil’.

Frankly, you have to wonder what made such an apparently lovable enterprise adopt a motto using such terminology. After all, who would have anticipated that evil might be undertaken in their corporate name? Not being a perverse Machiavellian conspiracy theorist, I doubt they ever intended to do anything untoward when they started. However, becoming billionaires at a young age and exercising enormous power and influence across the entire world population can do strange things to your values and that has certainly happened with Google’s founders and senior management.

Facebook is similarly guilty of crass disregard for the inherent privacy rights of users though it hasn’t actually resorted to stealing personal information, so far as we are aware. The difference does not excuse Facebook’s boorish approach to user rights and the emerging wave of mass withdrawals from the service may well escalate to become a tsunami.

The sad reality is that both these services operated with a substantial reservoir of user trust. It was inherent in the mutual transactions that took place each time we used them. Now, however, both have been exposed as fraudulent in their professed regard for their users. Both deserve universal condemnation and legal consequences, especially Google, which appears to be facing a veritable avalanche of government and private prosecutions in a welter of nations.

The challenge users must now confront is damnably difficult. Both these services have become part of many people’s daily lives. We have come to depend on them for their utility. Deep inside we know we should spurn them to teach them a lesson. But what alternatives are there? How do we supplant the reliance we have already established? We are like addicts who have grown to love the buzz too much. Do we go cold turkey or do we try to find a methadone replacement? We know what we should do but do we have the courage of our convictions? It is we, now, who face a moral dilemma. Do we reward violations of our trust and demean our personal values or do we do the right thing even if it comes at a personal cost of inconvenience?

Acknowledgement: Geoff Elliott, The Australian. 31 May 2010, p.27.

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