Few things in life are free – unless you count walks in the country, a trip to the park to watch the local football team and, of course, virtually everything on the internet.
No wonder it has become so popular. We’ve all been convinced that pretty much everything on it is there for us to pop in and grab. If it’s not, just move on to the next thing to titillate or otherwise pass away those minutes of human existence.
Google? Facebook? Twitter? It’s free. You can listen to the music of your choice, read the news, snoop around your neighbour’s house on property sites and even file through your friends’ holiday snaps on Facebook (something most of us used to dread, I seem to remember).
Scandal: Data on millions of Facebook users was obtained by Cambridge Analytica
You can see why all this might be addictive. But even the most technologically illiterate among us have worked out by now that time-wasting on the web has a murkier side many of us would rather not think too much about.
An advert from that furniture company that seems to follow you round just because you visited its site weeks ago looking for a new lampshade.
Or the Star Wars Lego that you last looked at in December and is still haunting you via pop-up ads in March.
The fact is that we all pay for what we get from the internet in the end by handing over our own personal information.
Whether it’s our browsing history or shopping habits, which are all tracked by Google or Microsoft for the benefit of advertisers; who we follow and what we ‘like’ on Facebook; and even more blatant giveaways, as with last week’s Cambridge Analytica debacle, like willingly filling in personality tests.
We pay in the end for what we get on the internet – by handing over data
These are the reasons Google is worth $711billion (£503billion) and Facebook $463billion, albeit around $75billion less than it was the previous week. But for their services, they take with one hand – and then take with the other as well.
More and more companies are complaining that tech firms have a free rein while their competitors fork out to keep the world turning.
Retailers have long complained of the billions of tax they are obliged to pay while Amazon and eBay escape lightly.
Telecoms and mobile phone companies spend billions to upgrade networks that support huge profits made by internet giants, even though the likes of Google and Facebook benefit as much as anyone from the improvements.
Meanwhile, real-world media are held to far stricter standards than the acres of content published and passed on through social media networks.
Last week’s revelations raised grave concerns about how companies like Facebook see the world.
Google is worth $711billion (£503billion) and Facebook $463billion, albeit around $75billion less than it was the previous week
Data on millions of its users was obtained by a political consulting firm, prompting some advertisers to pull their business from its site. No doubt the rest of the industry will be busily taking notes to ensure that they stay within a hair’s breadth of the rules.
We can change our behaviour too. But governments, which have undoubtedly been intimidated by this new beast, also have a role to play. This is their opportunity to get a grip. If data about us and our personal lives is the new currency, then we must treat it as such and make sure global technology firms realise how much we value information about us.
Ministers say Facebook would face fines of up to £1billion if found guilty under new data laws to be introduced in May. A line must be drawn on this issue. It’s time for regulators to bare their teeth – if only to show they have some.