Give Me Liberty — Or Give Me Likes

by Brett Schultz

Advertisers want our private data and lawmakers want to let them take it, but we have to resist.

With our nation’s Independence Day approaching, many of us are thinking about the lofty ideals of liberty and independence that people like Thomas Paine embodied. But just as the concept of liberty changed during the transition from monarchy to democracy, so does our understanding of liberty change as we enter a new age of hyper-connectivity.

Americans are faced with serious questions about who owns our private data and whether we can be truly free and independent when advertisers and the government can access our sensitive information.

In March, House Republicans voted 215-205 to undo the Federal Communication Commission’s Obama-era regulations that blocked Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from using consumer data. While this roll-back means advertisements can be better tailored to each specific user, it also means advertisers have access to web searches, page views, and even phone calls. Advertising companies and tech firms already bombard users with advertisements, and employ psychologists and magicians to try to work on consumers’ every impulse, desire, and personality flaw to get them to buy.

Imagine if advertisers have access to information you thought was strictly private, without your consent.

The result of this bill—which became law as part of President Trump’s first hundred days – is the erosion of privacy rights. This is a huge step toward obliterating the electronic privacy all Americans are entitled to and have worked hard to achieve. Though Republicans claim that the FCC creates abuse and government overreach, this repeal is a major loss for consumers.

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and magician, explains just how nefarious advertisers’ tactics can be, a warning to those who wish to grant advertisers even more access into personal lives. He details how experts use technology to exploit psychological vulnerabilities, selling us on products using more manipulation than many people comprehend.

According to Harris, magicians pull off their stunts by exploiting users’ ignorance of how a webpage is working and of their own limited understanding. It’s the same smoke and mirrors tactic employed by psychologists from ISPs, tech giants, and marketing departments to sell their products.

In this enlightening article, Harris offers a peek behind the curtains to show how this influence takes shape.

Menus—and therefore choices—are controlled not by the user but by the app designer. So though the Internet is providing a selection, that selection is limited. Control of that selection is going to be even less in the users’ hands when companies have more information about users’ interests.

Another psychological tactic that advertisers employ is our relationship with risk and reward. As Harris notes, the computer is essentially a mini slot machine: that’s why we check it so often, hoping for a payout. If you don’t check or swipe one extra time on Tinder – you may miss out on the big win or notification. When companies increase their store of personal data, they’ll be able to design even more personalized thrills (and addiction).

The interconnectivity of the web is also less free flowing than most think, Harris explains. Social media is designed to give us the good feeling: others see and care about you and enjoy your content. But the reality is that if you stopped producing content, they wouldn’t miss it. People get tagged in posts, and want likes and comments. Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat manipulate people by suggesting People You May Know and juicing users’ desire to belong.

Even the social exchange of these connections is engineered, Harris continues. By telling users when someone has followed their content, users feel compelled to return the favor, thereby engaging even more with social media.

Again, troves of personal data will result in more control, in this case, more engineered relations that enrich companies, not the human beings who are supposedly connecting.

Even the Internet’s seemingly endless flow of content has a nefarious side: more volume means that users keep feeding from what Harris, citing psychology studies, calls the “bottomless bowl.” That gorging will most likely increase when whatever in that bowl become more flavored to users’ tastes, which big companies will now understand with more nuance.

With so many companies already inside our heads, we have to be vigilant about protecting our right to privacy. This Independence Day, consider Thomas Paine’s words on freedom: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must . . . undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”