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Buying and Selling the Public: Facebook, Google and the cost of Big Media

April 13, 2018

It is interesting how many news sources have reported on Mark Zuckerberg recent visit to Congress to discuss his company’s role in Facebook’s harvesting of data from an estimated 87 million users.

Much of the news media coverage focused on how some members of Congress are not very clear on how social media functions, instead of the reason why Zuckerberg was called in before Congress.

Cambridge Analytica, a British data analytics firm, harvested data from over 87 million Facebookprofiles (up from Facebook’s original count of 50 million) without the users’ consent, according to a report by the London Observer (3/17/18) sourced to a whistleblower who worked at Cambridge Analytica until 2014.

The data collected was then used by Cambridge Analytica to comb through the political preferences of the survey takers and their Facebook friends, without their knowledge, to create individual “psychographic models” that would then allow for entities (like the Trump presidential campaign) to target them with personalized political advertisements and news.

All of this happened with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s knowledge.

Then there is Google, which has received almost no coverage of what one of their subsidiaries, Youtube, has been doing with the data mining of children.

A recent complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission, pointing out that Youtube has been illegally mining the data from millions of children under the age of 13 for years. 

According to the group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood

Many of YouTube’s most successful channels feature nursery rhyme videos, cartoons, toy ads, and other content designed to capture young children’s attention. YouTube provides how-to guides for creators making videos for kids. Google even runs a program called Google Preferred that lets advertisers pay extra money to get their ads onto the most popular kid-directed channels, like Ryan Toy Review and ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs.

In short: Despite the presence of literally millions of child-directed videos, and despite promising advertisers access to kids via YouTube ads, Google pretends that they aren’t responsible for the children on YouTube. Google knows kids are there, and they are not taking steps to protect their privacy. So we are.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, is the only federal law regulating how to handle kids’ online data, and its demands are relatively straightforward: if you run a site for kids, or if you know kids are using your site, you need to a) tell their parents exactly what kind of personal data you collect, and b) get verifiable parental permission before you gather any information from or about kids. There’s other stuff, too, but those are the basic requirements, and Google doesn’t even try to meet them. Instead, their privacy policy says that YouTube isn’t for children under 13, and that kids shouldn’t use it.

This is what out of control tech companies and media monopolies look like. Media Consumers are nothing more than a resource that these media conglomerates can make a ton of money from. A more honest assessment of consumers was given by Omnicom Group Senior Ad Executive David Lubars a few years ago, when he said:

“Consumers are like roaches. You spray them and spray them and they become immune after a while. The only answer is to spray them some more.”

As in the case of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, social media conglomerates like Facebook and Google have tremendous influence in our lives, both in terms of what we know and what we consume.

There is no simple solution to dealing with this overwhelming issue. Some groups advocate regulation, while other push for new kinds of social media sources. The reality is that since the media monopolies are so big, it is hard to operate outside of their reach. Maybe it is time for anti-Trust laws to be applied to these massive companies, to break them up. However, even this seems like a fairly in-effective strategy and maybe what is will take will be revolutionary imagination that will be led by a civil society, which doesn’t see people as consumers to be targeted.

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