As restrictive measures gradually ease in many countries and prospects seem to indicate the return to non-virtual sociality as imminent, the time is ripe for reflecting on the digital ecosystem, privacy and other related social issues.
Despite all the (traditional) media coverage on the use that large platforms make of their users’ data and the several ongoing campaigns promoting an increase in users’ awareness, the number of social media users has soared well above 4.2 billion in the last year, increasing by more than 10% on an annual basis.
While these figures were undoubtedly influenced by lockdowns and curfew-like restrictions that prompted many people to seek lost sociality through social media networks, they should also raise some question. This is particularly true in light of the fact that the growth of active social media users in 2020 amounts to almost twice the expansion of internet users worldwide.
How much do we care about our own privacy? Are the sense of community and the sharing of personal experiences we obtain from social media more valuable for us? If that’s the case, as some big-tech former executive has publicly stated, then governments and institutions all over the world are probably not pursuing the correct pattern to solving the many related issues. The problem is much deeper, and user privacy might not even be the primary factor to consider.
The core profit driver for big tech platforms like Amazon, Google and Facebook is commonly named “Surveillance advertising”. Long story short: digital platforms have exploited their massive user bases for years to track their preferences and apply them to deliver highly targeted advertising services to their customers. According to recent studies, the combined market share of these three tech giants amounts to more than 60% of the US digital ads market.
This race to generate more engagement and profit is responsible for creating the so-called “echo chambers”, which often facilitate the spread of misinformation, fuel extremism and radicalization, and contribute to hate speech. Furthermore, the aggressiveness of the same platforms on the advertising market has stripped traditional media companies of a large part of their revenues, destroying the profitability of news producers, whose activity is crucial for the health of any democracy.
The next question could well be: are these ads at least profitable to the firms which pay for their publication? The most recent research shows that the advantage for publishers is only about 4% in terms of conversions and performance. The intermediary (the platform) is undoubtedly the player that benefits the most from greater consumer data control. As for the users, being reached by slightly more relevant ads is unquestionably not worth all the entailed risks, from opening their data to breaches and being exposed to scam and deception to facilitating discrimination of any kind.
Institutions, at all levels, have been slow to react to these crucial issues, allowing them to take on their current immense proportions – both in economic and social terms. While Biden’s administration recently proposed a comprehensive and global tax reform that would force big companies to pay taxes where they earn revenues, preventing their systematic shift of profits to tax havens, there is still no consensus on how to address most of the societal issues connected with surveillance economy. These issues are not just about citizens’ privacy: they are about how we want our future to look and how the digital transformation will change our society. What are the values we are willing to give up, and which ones do we want to fight for?
To end on a positive note, at least governments seem to have learned something valuable for the future: technology has significantly accelerated innovation, forcing a faster and more flexible approach to policymaking. The lesson should make all of us more prepared for the challenges that lie ahead shortly, starting with regulating the research and use of artificial intelligence. Moreover, any future economic model for sustainability will have to include social and cultural consequences among the fundamental elements for its validity.