Beyond losses from price discrimination and from direct scams using targeted data, consumers lose out online as the value of their personal data is coopted for the profits of the big data platforms. In a broad sense, users lose out doubly since the data platforms not only sell their data to advertisers but also use the free labor and data provided by all users collectively to attract users to their sites in the first place. While users may vaguely feel that they are giving up some control of their data in exchange for services provided by big data platforms like Google and Facebook, those companies depend on the free labor of individuals posting their updates to Facebook, reviews on Amazon, edited stories on Wikipedia, and their links on blogs to make those services valuable.
In fact, Google’s original innovation in search technology was built around harvesting the diffuse labor of people across the Internet. Its original Page Rank algorithm used the links to other websites created by web site creators as a tool to assess and rank the likely value of websites containing similar information or keywords, an algorithm which has only been strengthened by tracking the sites for which people search.[i] Each click adds to the algorithm that can direct users with similar searches and interests to see the same link highly ranked as well. The more people find and use other people’s content via Google, the better Google’s algorithm becomes, reinforcing the precision and strength of its search engine vis a vis any challenger search technology which would lack access to the network of users and the information they generate on search preferences.[ii] Similarly, social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn depend on the daily infusion of writing and links by their users to provide value to other users and use experiments on the behavior of those users to strengthen their algorithms.[iii]