Web users unite: Let's tell sites to pay up

By Kevin Kelleher
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wake up, Web users. It's time you demanded your fair share for the vast wealth you are helping to build for the Internet's most popular sites. Yahoo, despite its recent troubles, has $4 billion in cash. Google has $22 billion that it won't even share with investors, let alone you. Facebook may one day amass even more cash than either of them. They could never have made a profit without the data they collect about you. So where's your share?

Face it: To these companies, you are not even a human being. You are a "user" -- one of the ugliest, most dehumanizing scraps of jargon to gain currency in the Internet era. It connotes the consumption or manipulation of something valuable, perhaps even in an addictive way. But our "using" the Web is only half of the story -- maybe less than half. You, dear user, may use the Web, but at the end of the day, it is you who is really being used. You have become someone's instrument for profit. And the worst part is, you're not even getting paid.

Of course, everyone knows his or her behavior is tracked online. Some people go to great lengths to protect their privacy, but the rest of us just tolerate the snooping. And most Web sites are upfront about this practice, in a manner of speaking: They disclose it in foggy legal language tucked away in dense "terms of services" or EULAs (that is, end user licensing agreements -- there's that word again!). What they won't tell you is this: Exactly what data have they collected on you? What does it say about you? How much are the data worth?

The short answer: an awful lot.

To get a taste of what is collected, try this. If you haven't cleared your browser history for a while, open it up. Inside its search bar, type in the name of your preferred search engine ("Google search," "Yahoo search," or "Bing" should work.) I did this with Google, and the search terms that had accreted were surprisingly detailed. Keep in mind that it's the richness of this data that drives Google's profits, targeting ads with a precision few companies can match. As chief executive Eric Schmidt said recently, "Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting."

Or just listen to Web executives when they gather at industry conferences. That's where they open up. Here is a Yahoo vice president gushing to investors last month about "the most exciting" thing that his site's users do:

"They leave a data footprint. They tell me what they are interested in. They tell me what kinds of things they are searching on. They tell me what kinds of articles they are reading. They tell me whether a user is interested in preparing for the tax season for next year. They tell me whether the user is going to be interested in a particular geography from a travel perspective. . . . All this wonderful data footprint, which has such high value."

Again, we all know in theory that our every comment and gestures are tracked online for the benefit of advertisers -- or we should. But think about how far it's gone. Imagine you were having a dinner party and some stranger walked in and wrote down every comment, recording each movement from you and your guests, then sold it. No one would put up with it in the real world. But that's exactly what Facebook is doing online.

It's not so much the intrusion on privacy -- a quaint concept in this age of do-it-yourself publishing, YouTube-spawned fame and reality-TV whoredom. The violation is more of an economic one. Publish a blog or set up a channel on YouTube, and Google will pay you ad revenue, after taking its own cut. They brag privately about how valuable our data are, but they won't share a cent of the riches they bring.

Web companies will argue that collecting personal data helps them afford to offer their services for free. This is true as far as it goes, which isn't very far. The biggest reason Web sites will never charge for search or social networks is that we'll all go somewhere else. What percentage of tweets, say, or YouTube videos would you actually pay to watch?

Usually when personal data are shared among companies, they're in an aggregate form, illuminating group behaviors and trends. In theory, this should return some benefits to the crowd in the same way collective votes in a democracy help shape policy. Instead, we just get a bunch of ads. The profits go to the executives and investors in the company or pile up in corporate coffers.

So: What if we all e-mailed these companies collecting our data with our own version a "terms of service" that read like this? "By collecting, storing, selling, trading, reselling or exploiting for any commercial purposes any information about me, your site agrees to pay me a licensing fee of $100 per month."

The first few times it happens, the companies will laugh. If it happens often enough, they will be annoyed. And then, maybe we will be heard as more than data.

Kevin Kelleher is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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