Running a website like Facebook is expensive. There is only one way to keep it free for users
Because so many of us use Facebook – well over a billion now – in so many aspects of our personal and professional lives, any changes to its terms and conditions are a pretty big deal. The latest change, which comes into force on 1 January 2015 has caused some consternation: that it’s too long, too complex, and dramatically extends how much data Facebook collects about you, and what it does with it. We have mistakenly come to think of Facebook as a public utility, as something that belongs to us, the people. Partly this is because we’ve got used to it all being free and partly because it’s just become part of the cultural furniture. As a result, we conveniently forget that Facebook is a private company, with noisy shareholders demanding profits.
Running a site with so many users is not cheap. We don’t pay for any of it. We get an incredibly well designed, efficient, reliable service which allows us to connect, debate, and discuss with millions of people around the world, host and share content, look at other people’s holiday photos. This is all pretty remarkable. And it’s all free. Free!
Except it’s not free, of course. Facebook pays for and owns the thousands of servers that host all our inane content. Then there’s all the well-paid and well-qualified engineers, programmers, and software designers that keeps the whole thing going. A site of this size also has social and legal responsibilities – such as trying to remove illegal content of the site – which means banks of lawyers, policy teams and so on.
That’s why Facebook wants your data – it’s the deal. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product and you pay for this with your data. Facebook’s business model depends on allowing companies to target adverts at us, based on the things we share. Personally, I’m quite comfortable with that transaction. I understand of course why plenty of people aren’t – and that’s their choice. They don’t have to strike the deal. But if we’re going to use this services – it’s all free, don’t forget – we need to accept that there’s a trade off.
That’s where those dastardly terms and conditions come into it – because that’s where we strike the deal. Terms and conditions have become a central part of much of our lives, and most of us just ignore them. Every time we use an internet device or connect to a website we tick a lengthy terms and conditions contract. But few of us really know what we’re signing up to, since they are usually only comprehensible to a contract lawyer with a background in software engineering. Still, we click agree and hope for the best. Certainly something needs to make them all a bit clearer for us mortals – which is harder than you think, since they’re based in the litigious US – but clarity could help. Whatever the deal is that we’re signing up to, we should know what it is. My colleague Carl Miller (amongst others) recently proposed to Parliament the idea of a kite mark for social media terms and conditions. Something like that will help to lift the contract into the realm of plain English, and stop some providers hiding the true privacy implications of using their service behind a wall of legalese.
Basic market competition should help too. As the value of our personal information grows, companies who are open about what they’re using, and why, will have a significant advantage over competitors. Still, we need to take some time reading up on the deal. A British firm recently included a clause which said asked for permission to “claim, now and for evermore, your immortal soul.” It harvested 7,000 such souls in one day. In the end, if we don’t like the deal, we can chose to not take part. Fortunately, there are plenty of other social media platforms out there too – and a growing number which don’t collect your data and don’t fire adverts at you. Just make sure you read the terms and conditions before you sign up.