If you’re not paying…

by Gates Thomas, Associate Professor, Contemporary Writing and Production

The views expressed herein are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Berklee Faculty Union or its Executive committee

Disability Services emails you a notification about a student.  Your department chair requests your input on a spreadsheet.  Both contacted you through your “Berklee” email — hosted by Google, and you must view those documents on GoogleDrive. 

You find a Berklee community or a colleague’s video of interest.  But first, you must join Facebook.

This state of affairs squelches free inquiry.  These companies are not public spaces, nor do they operate in the public interest.  Patronizing them is counter to our best interests, although “patronize” is the wrong word — a “free service” cannot have customers.  So if you’re not paying, what are you to them? 

You are the product.  Google and Facebook are data harvesters who pose as legitimate businesses.  Their real customers buy personal data.  Yours. 

This poses a severe threat to civil liberties, including privacy.  Although Google promised to stop collaborating on a drone development program, the company still cooperates with illegal state surveillance.  Facebook collaborates with the Atlantic Council, a think-tank with close ties to the CIA.  But let’s put aside these companies’ spying and shady business models for a moment.  What about their incompetence, or corporate irresponsibility? 

According to Facebook itself, at least 270 million of its accounts are phony, including its largest Black Lives Matter group.  Facebook's “emotional support groups” are infested by fake profiles, data harvesters, and commercial trolls preying on legit users.  Members who resist these sales pitches often find themselves banned from the groups.

Facebook is not a news source and fails as a news clearinghouse.  Its curating and censorship failures are infamous  — one phony Facebook post even managed to punk The New York Times.  In no realm is Facebook more inept and untrustworthy than the political;  in advance of the 2018 national elections in Mexico, Brazil, and the U.S., Facebook deleted thousands of accounts without explanation.  These purges showed a decided bias toward corporate news outlets and against alternative journalism.  (Once a page or account gets purged from Facebook, all its content and all work that went into building it is lost —another example of its unreliability as a platform.)  According to the Chicago Tribune, Facebook’s measures against fake accounts have failed.  Meanwhile, Google changed its algorithms to downgrade independent news sites.  These actions only exacerbate the problem of media concentration — the two companies combined now control 70 to 75 percent of media distribution.  

Facebook’s lack of ethics has advertisers bolting for the exits.  Chicago software company Basecamp recently pulled all advertising off the platform;  programmer David Heinemeier Hansson cites Facebook’s “despicable business model…predicated on violating people’s privacy and running an ad monopoly”. 

None of this should surprise, considering how much content on the internet is phony.  Click farms sell “likes” by the thousands, for just a few bucks.* 

As working people and as professors, we undermine our work, our students, and ourselves by subsidizing the world’s most powerful, corrupt, and dangerous corporations.  Facebook and Google are just two of the predatory, unethical companies that track in stolen goods, degrade our sources of information, and destroy the body politic.  We need to break our unhealthy dependence on these companies, and build or find alternatives that we ourselves own and control.

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*This article will not hyperlink to YouTube, owned by Google.  If you really want to see 

1) a click farm in action, or  2) a video showing how the click farm business operates, paste these addresses into your browser window after the domain name and “.com”:  

1)  watch?v=NXvzhYnlTU0      2)  watch?v=caYivZ83wqk

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