The Privacy Bargain

All lasting social contracts must provide benefits to those who engage in them. This is common sense, right? If some parties receive no benefits in the bargain, the contract has a way of evaporating quite rapidly.

Social contracts work best when the benefits are clearly laid out. You pay your taxes and the government ostensibly protects your property, your greater economic interests, and even your life. It’s not entirely unlike Big Al’s cousin Vince and his baseball bat offering you protection for a modest fee, except in Vince’s case the only benefit is an absence of malice. The government does actually do some good for people, which is why we elect to keep it around, even though we may occasionally elect professional clowns who undermine that goal.

When it comes to internet companies, the bargain should be even more explicit. Many of these companies don’t bill you, so the true cost  (and I guarantee there is is one, if there is a benefit to the company) is murky at best. For Google, the employees honestly believe (and they could be somewhat right) that serving you better, more relevant ads is in your interest and is therefore totally win/win for everyone. If more relevant ads means fewer ads, then I’d tend to agree.

Of course, they make billions of dollars off your eyeballs and you may save only a little time or effort, so it’s hardly a 50/50 split. Microsoft is a little more up front about the bargain. Use Bing to buy stuff, they say, and they’ll give you a small cut of the proceeds, some "cash back." Well, they can certainly afford it. Who knows if it’s working, but at least it’s the kind of bargain I can get behind.

But Facebook is another story. I’ve been getting a lot more friend requests lately, and I never turn old friends down, even though I don’t ever use the site for actual social networking. I’m willing to grant Facebook knowledge of whom I know, but little else.

Why? Because they don’t offer much of a bargain. In fact, it’s kind of crappy. Continue reading