What's the real threat to our internet freedoms? Counter-terrorism snooping programs set up in the name of undermining the actions of the likes of ISIS or Google sending you some online ads?
Fortunately for those of us wrestling with the ethical and legislative ramifications of this important debate, the Daily Mail has leapt to our rescue. It's Google, silly!
Let’s put some context on this. It’s been announced that two UK Members of Parliament are to mount a High Court legal challenge to government plans to introduce what it calls emergency surveillance laws and most of the rest of us refer to as the Snooper’s Charter.
I’m not getting into that debate right now. That can wait for another day. What’s raised my ire is an article in the Daily Mail newspaper by columnist Dominic Lawson in which he manages to leap from this legal challenge against potentially intrusive/potentially necessary anti-terrorist activity - delete as applicable - to berating Google and Facebook for being the real threat to us all.
According to self-defined ‘old stick-in-the-mud’ Lawson:
it is extraordinary how little attention is given to the far greater issue of how companies, almost all based in California, are using the most personal information of internet users for their own commercial purposes — and in a way countless millions who use their services seem scarcely to comprehend.
With a tiresome predictability, Lawson inevitably references Apple CEO Tim Cook’s comments last week about internet privacy and so-called free services on the internet. Cook’s argument was literate and well-promoted and prompted much rational debate - unlike Mr Lawson's which in my mind is better classed as reactionary scaremongering.
To be fair, Lawson does face up to the uncomfortable reality that Facebook makes no secret of what it’s asking you to do when you sign up, although it’s a somewhat grudging admission, couched as:
Of course, Facebook can protest that it makes clear to its users what they are signing up to.
Well, yes, yes it can indeed protest that, because that’s exactly what it does. It makes no secret of what it’s doing. You may disagree with the implications of that. You can make a case that it’s not always easy enough to understand. You might well think it's not a price worth paying. But you can’t say that they don’t tell you.
But then there’s that other Daily Mail staple to fall back on - will nobody think of the children? Lawson protests:
[Facebook’s terms and conditions] is also dangled in front of our teenage (and even younger) children who will tick that box without a moment’s thought — and certainly with less consideration than Dr Faust gave to the contract the Devil put in front of him.
If Facebook buried in its terms and conditions the word ‘soul’, it would fit in very well with the deal it offers.
To which, in an attempt to empathise with this increasingly histrionic call to arms, I cry: Send for the exorcist! Fetch the witch finder general!! Our very souls are in peril from the demonic dark lord Zuckerberg!!!
Watch out for the ads!
But wait, it seems that while Lawson has warded off the forces of Facebook, he has succumbed to the wiles of Google and does accept that as part of the deal for using its free services, he’s going to be sent advertising.
That’s just as well really because on the Mail Online page where his article is posted, there’s a Google ads slot in the 'sidebar of shame' currently pumping out an ad at me, rather splendidly just opposite the point where he’s laying into Google and its ads.
Perhaps Mr Lawson needs to have a word with his employers who appear to be conspiring with Faust’s Devil here? (If you Google back to the 1930s, you’ll find that in common with other media outlets over the years the Mail has had some interesting bedfellows to say the least…).
Just when you think the article can get no worse, Lawson plumbs the depths of bad taste to make another desperate leap to justify his flimsy ‘fear them, fear them’ thesis. In the UK last month, a 92 year old woman killed herself after apparently being driven to distraction by charity phone calls. Lawson makes the 'obvious' link:
The firms involved in this advertising nirvana will point out that they are making suggestions you are free to decline ... just as those charities did in the case of Olive Cooke, the 92-year-old Bristol woman who threw herself to her death in Avon Gorge having been driven demented by the constant wave of requests from organisations which had acquired her details by purchasing databases she almost certainly never knew about.
From ISIS counter-terrorism to Google advertising to charities driving old ladies to their death - a journey travelled in less than 1000 words and without the seeming burden of a logical thesis to support the weight of the unwary reader.
But it’s a journey that arrives at its unwelcome destination:
Big Brother government is one thing: but the snoopers we should be most concerned about are those who would sell us all to the highest bidder.
I don’t know why I’m surprised by this from a newspaper that routinely appears to despair of the very existence of the internet, despite the millions of pounds it earns from its own depressingly successful online venture.
The Mail’s rampant Google-phobia in particular has been nakedly on view for years and its hatred for Facebook’s not been far behind.
There are genuine concerns to be had about the long-term implications of the data collection and tracking activities of large commercial services providers. Some of those were flagged up by Apple’s Cook last week, albeit none that were remotely original, although none the less valid for that.
Lawson’s ‘think of the children’ angle is risible in the extreme. Most teenagers have (a) far greater awareness of what they’re signing up to (b) see the Google ads phenomenon as (for better or worse) a completely normal part of the customer experience and (c) have a completely different cultural mindset when it comes to sharing data and data privacy to the ‘stick-in-the-muds’ to which Lawson pitches his sorry lament.
In one respect, I just want to point and laugh. But what’s alarming is the reach that the Mail has into a segment of society for whom the ‘fear it, fear it’ mantra comes neatly wrapped in a comfort blanket of confirmation bias.
But then the real motive behind this article is exposed by the headline: Facebook and Google are cashing in on our secrets - and we need to get angry about it.
The important part is the last 7 words - making people angry about stuff would be a very apt Daily Mail mission statement.
And no, I haven’t provided a link to the article. They may end up getting some indirect traffic from me writing this, but I’m doing nothing more to help directly.
Besides, I wouldn’t want to expose your souls to the Faustian threat from all the Google ads on the site.