Skip to main content

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.
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
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT