Starting around the turn of the millennium, internet-based technology companies have been increasingly collecting, aggregating, and analyzing information from their users. Commonly referred to as big data, this information is largely used to target advertising and predict user behavior, either by the companies collecting the data, or by third parties who purchase it for these purposes. Such practices have sparked disputes about what rights users have to privacy and how their information can be ethically used. Companies like Google, Facebook, Spotify, and Amazon have been accused of being manipulative, invasive, and profit-driven to the point of exploiting their users. Indeed, they consider users to be more like products than customers. Nonetheless, there are numerous benefits to society that these companies provide; the big data industry has allowed for unprecedented access to knowledge, global communication, and all forms of media, often for free or for very little cost, connecting the world in ways that were never possible before. As a result, it could be argued that tech companies (and their usage of big data) in aggregate make the world a better place. Bearing this in mind, there are still numerous ways to minimize their ethically dubious practices without lessening their societal value.
ADVOCACY FOR THE DEVIL [rough layout]
These practices, while they may appear invasive, in fact serve to improve the experience of using these services in several ways, and make them accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The world would be worse overall without them.
•Targeted content is actually beneficial to the user. In the case of advertising, it means that they get exactly what is right for them. This could mean they become aware of products that are too niche for traditional advertising, or that things they are looking for become easily accessible. But it is not just advertisers who are better able to reach their audience. Artists are too, and as a result are less burdened by needing to sacrifice their individuality for mass-appeal in order to be successful. For the user this facilitates finding artists who suit their preferences, and discovering things that interest them which otherwise would have never crossed their paths.
•Aided by the processing of big data, the services provided are far more valuable than the information given. The access to knowledge provided by search engines is immediate and rich. One no longer needs to buy a newspaper or watch television to be kept up to date on the news, scientific research is easy to find, and information on nearly everything imaginable is discoverable. In addition to educational material, the access to media provided by streaming services has allowed people to experience a wider variety of content, and conveniently, than was ever previously possible. The ease of communication provided by social media then facilitates the sharing of this information and media, in addition to enabling collaboration around the world. This connecting ability further allows people to find others with similar interests, no matter how niche those interests are.
•These services are not only valuable, but this business model makes them accessible to everyone who needs them, whether or not they could afford them otherwise. By providing information, users are availing themselves of a kind of capital they otherwise would not be able to use. By making these services free, Big Data democratizes access to all the benefits previously stated. It is an application of technology that benefits everyone.
CONCLUSION [rough layout]
•No doubt there is benefit to society, but must privacy be sacrificed? There are ways to provide the bulk of the benefit here without analytics driven advertising, or at least to be more transparent about how data is being used.
•These companies exist in a capitalist market which drives profitability over anything else. Regulation ensures that they do good.
•Hyper-focused advertising and media is not necessarily a good thing. Wider exposure allows for better adjusted views, rather than reinforcing them. It is unclear how this can be corrected since people can still look for exactly what they want without predictive recommendations.