It’s safe to say that reality has not lived up to the utopian vision of a highly advanced technological society. The optimism present in the 80s during the microchip boom and again in the 90s with the internet revolution has given way to a rather dreary outlook. This pessimistic view has various causes, including the proliferation of mass surveillance systems and the overall erosion of fundamental privacy rights. Can this be fixed? AXEL believes it can, but tech corporations will have to pursue alternative business models and practices for it to happen. Let’s look at how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it.
Initial promise leads to technocratic dystopia?
So, where did this pessimism come from recently? After all, it was only a decade ago that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was touting his social media platform as a way for people all over the world to connect meaningfully. Social media and the convenience of Big Tech services were supposed to advance the human race. And, for a while, it appeared like they might. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter helped facilitate significant historical events, such as the 2010 Arab Spring. However, as the years passed, it became apparent that these services had a darker side.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal first reported on in 2015 was the tipping point. It’s where Facebook got caught selling vast amounts of its users’ personal information to the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. This firm used the data in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 United States elections. While it is unknown exactly how successful this was (after all, Ted Cruz’s ill-fated campaign was the first to use this data), what was obvious is that Facebook collected and sold an alarming amount of information without consent.
Looking back, people should have known all along. Enormous tech platforms require thousands of skilled employees and significant backend infrastructure to maintain. Since they are typically free to use, how do they make money? Personalized advertising due to mass surveillance.
Trust in Big Tech hits all-time lows
Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, education regarding how Big Tech analyzes and sells data has improved. The average consumer now understands that there shouldn’t be an expectation of privacy when using these services. In fact, according to a 2020 survey, over 85% of people are “very concerned” about how companies like Facebook and Google handle their personal data. We feel this is a great trend, but there will need to be an aggressive demand from consumers for better privacy protections for any actual progress. The unfortunate truth is that even if there is a tacit understanding of the current reality, consumers either feel trapped in the situation or are otherwise willing to put up with the status quo.
This is evidenced by a 2019 panel discussion where business leaders and academics talked about the ethics of data collection. Throughout the roundtable, the majority of the audience and the panel itself agreed to give up their privacy for small monetary benefits.
We believe this line of thinking is short-sighted and naïve. One point that kept coming up was that most trusted the firms collecting their data not to misuse it and to protect it. We know from countless stories that neither of these assumptions is prudent. Not only will companies sell data without consent, but they can’t guarantee hackers won’t pilfer it illicitly. Even organizations spending adequate resources on cybersecurity get compromised routinely. Many of the largest businesses in the world have had terrible breaches. Putting that kind of faith in Big Tech’s trustworthiness will only end in disappointment.
The way forward
As a company that values user privacy, here are our tips for ushering in a new era of tech that delivers on the optimistic vision of previous generations:
Opt-in for advertising rather than opt-out. So far, organizations attempting to remedy privacy concerns have relied on providing opt-out clauses for data collection. We feel this puts the burden on the consumers, who tend to be busy. Most people don’t read privacy policies or want to click through a maze of links to get to the opt-out page. Privacy should be the default. If there really are benefits worthy of people giving up their personal info, the company should state their case clearly and provide a link to opt-in to the advertising.
Move away from free-to-use business models. We’ve covered this topic in a previous blog, but it’s a necessary shift if people truly value privacy. Free software and services create bad incentives to misuse data because it’s the only way to monetize users. This can be alleviated by normalizing paid software again. Consumers didn’t always have the expectation of free software. With a coordinated education outreach, paid software may make a comeback.
Transparency. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Cambridge Analytica scandal was that Facebook sold information without consent. If an organization wants to offer free services to those who opt-in to personalized advertising, it should go the extra mile and be transparent about how it uses that data. This would lead to fewer surprises and major scandals. Users could make informed decisions and weigh the tradeoffs accordingly.
AXEL leads the way
At AXEL, we provide data storage and sharing solutions that prioritize privacy and security. Not only is our leading platform, AXEL Go, built with secure implementations of blockchain technology, decentralized servers, and robust encryption, but our entire data collection policy centers around the philosophy that less is more. Just take a look at AXEL Go compared to other popular cloud drives. AXEL does not collect data linked to your identity. Period.
You can sign up for a free trial of our Premium AXEL Go service today and get the peace of mind that nobody is mining your content or selling your data. We can bring about change together. Join the privacy revolution.
Jose Antonio Vargas, “How an Egyptian Revolution Began on Facebook”, The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/books/review/how-an-egyptian-revolution-began-on-facebook.html
 Allen Bernard, “Most consumers do not trust big tech with their privacy”, TechRepublic, July 29, 2020, https://www.techrepublic.com/article/most-consumers-do-not-trust-big-tech-with-their-privacy/
 “How can we rebuild trust in the digital world? A discussion with Professor Michael Sandel”, Fujitsu.com, May 16,2019, https://www.fujitsu.com/global/vision/insights/201905event/