Column:

Consumers and the Google balloon

subscriber | 11 June, 2013

The last six months I have searched online for an awful lot of stuff: outdoor garden cabinet's, adjustable desks, office chair's, tarpaulins', awning's and most lately a MacbookPro.

And just the other day I looked up Black Sabbath to try and remember a 70's song of theirs I used to like.

It did not surprise me that my searches started to take a life of their own a few months ago.

I started to recognise those same product ad's  i visited. The stage of total individualisation had arrived, most probably courtesy of Google.

What came more as a surprise was that there quite evidently was some intense trading of my data going  somewhere behind the scenes. This became clear to me when my iTunes suddenly was pushing for Black Sabbath.

And here's the thing: I had originally looked up Black Sabbath on my Spotify so although Apple and Spotify are not the best of friends - Apple has just released its own version of a Spotify service. So they are out to if not kill certainly make life a lot harder for the Swedish music  service. Which did not stop them from trading my data profile within a matter of hours or less. My last search, the one for a new MacBook actually travelled to a couple of other web pages I was visiting for completely different reasons within minutes. If that.

There are all sorts of privacy and transparency issues invoiced in this data trading business behind mine and your back. You get more of that further down in the story. It makes me hopping mad. As I can do very little about it.

What concerns me more, and what actually makes me furious is that while I understand the way it works developing market newcomers to this type of technology -  this awkward consumers world of ours where priorities are so skewed -  have absolutely no protection against this kind of marketing onslaught and can do absolutely nothing about it. If you live in a place with limited access to goods it may be just brilliant in fact to suddenly have the world of consumer goods thrown at you.

In that sense newcomer to search engines, e-portals and phone apps are point blank targets, more exposed than a can on a shooting range.

How extraordinarily easy it now has become for the global tech companies to target developing market.

As technology moves across to mobiles, the internet and apps, there will be another 2-3 billion people to target.

Micro-finance will lay open a side of poor, but now aspiring countries, where they will be offered credit on the basis of their pre-paid, regular cell-phone record. It will be very tempting and more people than should - as we all do even when we know better - will get into debt. And loan sharks.

Online sellers will offer the products every micro-segment need or are aspiring to own, the will offer 'easy terms', and with the various new collaterals it will happen.

Poor people are also perfectly capable of thinking for themselves and will learn. But if I can't fend off these data trading super-speed growing tech multinationals how on earth will less informed people at the globalised world's entry level - in South Africa, in Congo, In rural India in Bolivia - be able to?

There is a comforting side to this too. We starting to fight the same kind of war, facing some daily problems that are exactly the same wherever we are in the world, geographically or socially.

The rest here is just a record of my own little experience of recent online shopping searches:

Me clicking on an ad or searching for specific data - or indeed mention a certain keyword in my messages to friends on Facebook - triggers of a whole series of data offers. More cynical data boffins will tell me that I am an idiot if I think that my use of Google, Facebook, etc is for free. The price I am paying is that they can trade my private data. What ever private data I am carefree enough to give away on their respective platforms. In the case of Google this includes searching my emails for key words. In the case of Face book its what I tell my friends.

The various normally competing ecosystem's -  Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are examples of so called ecosystem's - are then actually, despite that they are supposed competitors, changing that data. They are then liking the data to their own  data and whatever clever algorithms they have built to ultimately convince me to open my pocket.

I may not need to remind you that this is a multi-zillion dollar game. Which is why Mark Zuckerberg became one of the top 20 richest men in the world when Facebook listed with mind-bogglingly dicy valuation.

Now, I would say I am a seasoned journalist, with experience in finding out the inner motives of corporations. I have also started two web businesses and I fully understand how and why this is happening. So I cannot really complain too much. I know I can turn my back to those who are trying to turn me into a fool.  We are after all living in fools paradise.

Here is the rub, I know all this. And I know I can just turn off the tap. Its my choice.

But I just cannot get myself to do that. It means to say farewell to my occasional visits to Facebook where I have managed to reconnect with loads of old friends and been able to get to know new friends.  And to get the hell out of Google. There are many very good reasons why I should do so. They have become way to powerful, and power corrupts. Also online.

Similar arguments for Youtube (Google again), Skype (Microsoft), Apple (I am a Mac man since 1987) and most lately Spotify. And Linked-in. And….

I am definitely a global citizen by now, having been a foreign correspondent for many years and lived away from my home country Sweden for two decades. So it is a very very hard decision to take.

And I do not want to. What I want, and that is where my interests are completely converging with people I have met over the years in South Africa's and Nigeria's slums, India's rural towns, Mozambique's and Malawi's farm lands as well as in  in Ethiopia's and Eritrea's famine areas. We all just a cell phone call away. And can make the same searches and can be exposed to the same ad's.

So what can we do. I think instead of waiting for disaster to happen. We must make a premature strike. And make sure consumer's are reaching out to lesser protected consumers. It is a call I think the world's leading tech companies must do something about very urgently. Protection of privacy is a luxury compared with what is coming when the Google balloon is up in the air.

CHRISTER L. PETTERSSON

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