Skip to main content

I'd pay Facebook if it can give me privacy

By David R. Wheeler
updated 1:09 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
On Thursday Facebook bowed to privacy concerns by making new users' privacy settings default to "Friends" instead of "Public." The new feature also walks existing users through privacy settings, letting them make changes if they so desire. Read on for more stats about Facebook, which turned 10 in February. On Thursday Facebook bowed to privacy concerns by making new users' privacy settings default to "Friends" instead of "Public." The new feature also walks existing users through privacy settings, letting them make changes if they so desire. Read on for more stats about Facebook, which turned 10 in February.
HIDE CAPTION
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Wheeler: When I go online, data from my private messages are sold to advertiser
  • Wheeler: We get Facebook for free, but the price we pay is our privacy
  • He says embarrassing and out-of-context Web ads are affecting nearly everyone
  • Wheeler: I would rather pay Facebook a fee in order to keep my personal data private

Editor's note: David R. Wheeler lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where he is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at Asbury University. Follow him on Twitter @David_R_Wheeler

(CNN) -- Like most couples, my wife and I were discussing marriage before we officially got engaged. But we discovered that we could not keep our private information private. Once we started discussing engagement rings in (supposedly) private Facebook messages to each other, my Web browser became inundated with engagement ring advertisements. From then on, anyone in the same room with me knew our plans.

The aphorism is true: If you're not paying for the product or service, you are the product or service being sold.

Like most people who use computers, the information in your private message or Web search is being sold to an advertiser. The ads continue to follow you around, popping up at the most inopportune moments when a friend, relative or co-worker happens to be near your screen.

David Wheeler
David Wheeler

We get Facebook for free, and we do our Web searches for free, but the price we pay is our personal data, which are used by advertisers to entice us to buy things that they think we want.

It doesn't have to be this way. I would gladly pay a reasonable fee to Facebook and Google if they would allow me to keep my private information private.

I'm hardly alone in my disenchantment with the tech world's use of people's personal information. Embarrassing and out-of-context Web advertisements are affecting nearly everyone who uses the Internet these days.

My friend Jim Trammell, a college professor in High Point, North Carolina, who is happily married to a woman, once wrote a paper about how homosexual Christians are covered in evangelical magazines, which required online research.

"I felt like I was getting ads about gay-friendly vacations and dating services for months," he told me. "Fortunately, Mrs. Trammell knew about my project."

Alyssa Richter, a magazine editor in Lexington, Kentucky, was recently looking for baby shower gifts for a pregnant friend. Right on cue, her Web browser became flooded with neverending ads for parenting magazines and onesies. "My husband saw them on my computer and was like, 'Is there something you're not telling me?' " she said.

Although these examples are innocuous and even humorous, other targeted advertisements based on (ostensibly) private information can seem intrusive or disturbing.

A friend of mine who asked that I not use her name told me about an experience she had when she discovered that she was pregnant. Not surprisingly, she immediately began conducting Web searches related to her pregnancy. Excited and happy, she and her husband started making plans for the baby. If that were the end of the story, the targeted ads would have been fine. But she miscarried. And the targeted ads kept coming.

"It was hard for me even though it was such a short-lived pregnancy," she said. "It was like rubbing salt in the wound."

The programs that scan your Web activities do not discriminate. Being non-human, they cannot show sensitivity or propriety. Any clue you've given is fair game.

Distressed about a dying relative? Don't be surprised to see ads from funeral homes. Planning to buy your spouse a surprise gift? It won't be a surprise when an ad for that specific gift pops up suspiciously on your browser the next day, when the two of you are sharing the computer.

I should add that it's not just Google and Facebook that engage in these practices. Many websites choose to run ads that are specifically targeted toward users.

I'm always fascinated by the way people rush to defend the reigning tech companies. One example: No one is forcing you to use these websites. True, but that's sort of the same thing as telling a person in a small city with no public transportation that they're not legally required to get a car. If you want to participate in normal daily life, what other option do you have?

Another example is the "terms of service" defense. If you use Facebook or Google, you have agreed to their terms of service. That may be true from a strictly legal standpoint, but from a practical standpoint, this defense falls apart. As Alexis Madrigal pointed out in an article in The Atlantic, reading all the privacy policies you encounter in a typical year would take many days.

Finally, there's the "opt out" defense, which goes something like this: "Hey, the tech companies aren't trying to get you to do anything you don't want to do. You can adjust your privacy settings."

Right. Really? Tech companies have their own interests to look over. That's why, despite a class-action settlement meant to ensure Facebook users' agreement to their "likes" being used in ads, the practice continues under the radar.

The public has been whipped into a frenzy lately by revelations of NSA overreach. It's interesting to me that people aren't equally concerned about privacy violations by tech companies.

"Don't be evil," Google used to say. OK. That's admirable. But that's also a pretty low standard. How about adding an additional goal: Do more good.

"Facebook is free, and always will be." Great. Continue to offer the free version for people who don't care about their privacy. I'll take the "Premium" version, pay for it with actual money and keep my personal information to myself.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David R. Wheeler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT