When it comes to digital platforms, we’re frogs

There is a fable that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will leap out. But, if the frog sits in water that is gradually heated, it won’t realize the danger and be boiled to death. That is where Internet users find themselves when it comes to digital platforms such as Facebook and Google.

Facebook’s founding in 2004 ushered in an era of social connectivity. Users enjoyed sharing pictures and videos, connecting with friends and expressing their opinions. The privacy concerns seemed largely about how much our Facebook friends could see into our personal lives.

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As we fast forward 14 years, it is clear with the emergence of sophisticated tracking technologies that Facebook has been gradually turning up the temperature on the frog. Facebook can now track you whether you use its site or not. Through its Instagram subsidiary, a complex network of apps developers, data sharing partners and advertisers, Facebook is constantly harvesting information.

You may not even have an account, but if your friends have Facebook then you essentially do as well.

Facebook has merely perfected what Google started. Once primarily a search engine, with its acquisition of DoubleClick, Google became the middle-man between advertising agencies and premium brands looking to reach consumers online. With YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps, and a list of other properties, Google could capture information about what we liked, where we went, and what we said – and leverage it with advertisers.

In fact, as an Associated Press investigation revealed last month, Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to. 

The Facebook and Google that we as consumers started using over a decade ago are not the same digital platforms we use today. Twitter CEO and co-found Jack Dorsey said so in his Senate testimony: “Every time someone opens up our service, every time someone opens up our app, we are implicitly incentivizing them to do something or not to do something. And that extends all the way to our business and those answers that we get from asking those questions are going to create massive shifts in how Twitter operates and I also believe in how our industry operates. So what worked 12 years ago does not work today.”

What once was the equivalent of the video game Pong is now an Xbox. And because it happened gradually we didn’t really notice its impact. Only now, after the alarming reports of election manipulation, divisive content, and revelations that Facebook turned over personal information on tens of millions of Americans to companies such as Cambridge Analytica, are we starting to catch up.

This spike in sophisticated technologies created and used by Facebook and Google has spurred fears that the companies are launching a corporate surveillance state from which citizens cannot escape. The Federal Trade Commission will hold hearings this fall, state attorneys general are investigating and controversies such as Cambridge Analytica raise questions about who is getting our personal information and what we can do to stop it.

While Facebook and Google promise to do better, the hard truth is their business model compels two things. One, harvest as much data as they can so it can be monetized. Two, allow just about anything to appear on their platforms so traffic grows. If they stop doing either of those things, their revenues will decline, and stock prices will plummet. Case in point: Facebook’s record loss of $119 billion in market value over concerns that privacy and security issues will affect profits.

All these are 2018 problems. Let’s get back to the frog in warming water. We know what is coming: artificial intelligence, sophisticated digital assistants that will make Alexa and Siri seem downright rudimentary and the Internet of Things that will continue to connect billions of devices.

We’re naïve if we think that Facebook and Google will not tap into those developments to track every American, understand what we do, and, most frightening, use that data to influence the decisions we make. A Google internal video has already given us a window into its thinking.

The video describes how widespread data collection could be used to shape the decisions society makes. The video explores how, using what it learns, it could shape users’ health and environmental decisions, issues that “reflect Google’s values as an organization.” Who’s in charge of the data you would see as you make life decisions? Google, of course.

With that technology, we’d be at a boil. Would we notice?

Policymakers grapple with what to do about it. If they decide the issue is the result of deliberate choices Facebook and Google are making (behavioral), they can impose regulations that limit the type of information that digital platforms allow on their sites and what data can be collected. It’s noteworthy that earlier this year Congress cracked down on platforms notorious for sex trafficking. Up next: whether digital platforms bear responsibility for other illicit activities, such as the sale of counterfeits, illegal drugs, pirated content and stolen credit cards.

When Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSotomayor: Kavanaugh now part of the Supreme Court ‘family’ Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader MORE (D-W.Va.) asked Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg if the platforms would help create new rules cracking down on opioid offerings, Twitter’s Dorsey said he was “open” to a dialogue on changes, while Sandberg said Facebook would want to work “very closely on how this would be enacted.” Google said nothing… because Google didn’t even bother to send one of the company’s top executives to the hearing.

The policymakers who don’t believe they can change the platforms’ behavior look for a structural solution. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is investigating Google’s business practices, news leaders such as the Boston Globe have called for Google’s break-up, and Facebook faces the possibility of anti-trust action.

There’s a lot at stake here, and if nothing gets done, maybe we’re a frog in a different fable. In that one, the scorpion reminds us it’s in his nature.

Based in Washington, D.C., Tom Galvin has been active on Internet security and safety issues for nearly two decades. As Executive Director of the Digital Citizens Alliance, Galvin is focused on raising awareness about issues such as piracy and malware, the illegal online sale of opioids, steroids and other prescription drugs and the blurring of the lines between the Dark Web and mainstream digital platforms.