With great caution
Until there are sweeping changes in data privacy norms, users must exercise their rights carefully by demanding greater transparency from big tech companies
As many as 4.66 billion people across the world use the internet, making technology based on it a critical consumption of our times. Corresponding with the usage are the consumer rights, often shrouded in tomes of inaccessible legalese, which is somehow always a 'skip' button away. Sounds familiar?
As a tech creator and communication designer, I am thankful to the movie The Social Dilemma; it explains in simple terms the relationship between a digital platform (say your favourite social networking site) and you.
You are the product they are selling. Your data — such as your viewing preferences, your personal habits and screen-time patterns — are how the platform gauges and grows. This simply means you are being monitored by the platform for their gains.
It is critical to understand that such frameworks have been created not because of the absence or possibility of technological solutions but because they want to know the user better to be able to control and sell more to him / her.
According to Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of computer science, political science and statistics at Yale University, there are only two industries that call their customers 'users': Illegal drugs and software.
That's a serious thought to chew on. What are the solutions? Making yourself more quickly adaptable to new technologies and a safer user experience is one.
When the news of Whatsapp's new policy for its Indian users started to pour in, in a desperate bid, I initiated a small focus group-led call to action — asking my family members and my closest work colleagues to move to Signal, an alternative messaging platform that famously allows for better privacy of its users.
I was not surprised with the response I received unanimously: "A lot of my contacts, especially work-related are already on WhatsApp; transitions would not be possible."
The inability to exit an oft-used platform that has now become a part and parcel of your daily life is what drives such apps and innovations to create more features that keep you addicted. This is a textbook case of 'barriers to exit' technology that nearly all technological platforms aim at.
I too would conditionally espouse that because the idea is to continue having people on the platform, right?
But in this unholy mix of data bartering without consent and the user being monitored for patterns of use, the moot point remains: Are the technologies using treats like better network and working advantage to prevent the users from exiting? Are the usage-related treats actually adding value to people or taking in much more than they are giving back?
I wonder if we were to ask the major social media creators, how can they promote usability sans addiction, where would we reach? Definitely not where we are today.
How many hours, days, months, even years have we already spent on social media since its advent?
Other than promoting the fundamental humane need to be seen, understood and heard, I wonder if social media helped solve any real-life problems. Would we be debating addiction, or would we be brimming with new possibilities?
The quick login-in economy
We live in a world of digital explosion: How many times have you been to an application or a site and been asked for a quick login via Google or Facebook? This even applies to reading material where readership is not free and you have the option to enter your email address.
Some of these are respectable platforms with noble missions and content. Then what stops these platforms from adapting a safer data-practice or allowing the readers, users, online visitors to actually see and interact with the terms of the policy.
More accessible and transparent use of data gathered from such log-ins is a quick and reasonable demand as a user. Till such time that there is a mass and global movement towards adoption of safer, discreet technology which doesn't monitor its users or attempt to hook users, ideal options, platforms are like wishing for flying unicorns.
Until then, there could always be a bigger, stronger drive of transparency and a more informed approach on the consumer's end to engage with their privacy concerns directly with the companies.
In conclusion, the answer lies in activating a quest for better choices, for there are none today. Here is what one must do:
Demand transparency and give the skip button a skip
Skip the quick log-in economy. Think about who gets all the information as you log-in with an already existing account, which probably has way more on you than you can imagine.
And definitely remember to skip the skip button.
Views expressed are personal