‘Just because a company can collect all kinds of personal information on consumers, it doesn’t mean they should use it’ – Bill Schmarzo, chief technology officer for EMC Global Services
You may think that the ethics of a company’s information system technology doesn’t affect your daily life. You’d be mistaken in that belief. Today we are more plugged into technology than ever before. How many times have you scrolled through Facebook, browsed for something on Amazon or googled that fact that’s on the tip of your tongue? Most users are completely unaware of the information being collected from every click, search, and interaction they encounter online.
IT affects you more than you might think. It may have made staying in touch with your friends easier but what isn’t generally known is that it can affect your mood. A recent article in The Guardian stated that Facebook have conducted secret emotional experiments on its users. They proved that they could manipulate their users to feel either happy or sad, depending on the content they’re presented with. In the article they quoted Jim Sheridan, a member of the Commons media committee for the UK Parliament, by saying, “this is extraordinarily powerful stuff and if there is not already legislation on this, then there should be to protect people,” he said. “They are manipulating material from people’s personal lives and I am worried about the ability of Facebook and others to manipulate people’s thoughts in politics or other areas.” We see that social media plays a huge role in our generation and this article aims to examine the true extent of this power. For instance, could we be persuaded to buy a product subliminally, based on the content we have been viewing online? Moreover, if we do purchase something online, and are rewarded with positive content, would this further enhance our spending? Edmund Ingham of Forbes seems to think so. The Guardian article mentioned above briefly talks about Facebook having the potential to start revolutions by spreading discontent. This may seem far-fetched however many argue that there is truth to this claim. This article from the Economist claims that social media has shifted the balance of power in our society away from centralized government power and authority.
Websites such as Facebook and Google use consumer information to enhance their online experience and provide more personal, tailored advertising. As consumers, we’re led to believe this is purely for our convenience, but is this solely why these companies collect this information, and is their behaviour ethical?
Historically, the main aim of a firm is to generate revenue and to increase profits from year to year. Personal data has become extremely profitable in recent years, but just how economically valuable is this data? Google and Facebook are accessing users’ personal information such as gender, sex, religion, demographic and personal interests as a basis for targeted advertising. In 2014, 2013, and 2012, advertising accounted for 92%, 89% and 84% , respectively of Facebook’s revenues. Google’s advertising contributes to more than 90% of its revenue, and as more data is being collected this is continuing to increase. (see figure 1)
This use of personal information spread from online to in-store promotions. Target, one of America’s largest superstores, compromised customer privacy by revealing a teenage girl’s pregnancy to her father through the sending of coupons for baby products based on her previous purchases. Although these coupons would have increased sales for Target and provided a discount for the consumer, it was done through a breach of privacy.
There has been a considerable surge in the attempt to get the whole world online in recent years. The biggest issue with providing internet to everyone is who pays for it? Facebook has offered to provide funding to introduce the internet into third world countries, but what is their incentive? Are Facebook offering this funding knowing they will gather masses of personal information from these users? I think one thing is certain; it’s not a gesture of goodwill.
As consumers and social networkers we need to determine just how ethical these practices are. Furthermore if these companies are breaching our privacy and profiting from our personal information under the potentially false pretences of personalised advertisements, does this not directly constitute unethical behaviour? Wouldn’t consumers prefer to have to search a little longer in order to be safe in the knowledge their movements aren’t constantly being tracked? I’ll let you decide.
Until next time,