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I'd pay Facebook if it can give me privacy

By David R. Wheeler
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
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.
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10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
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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.

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

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