Solving the facebook problem

Facebook are in the firing line yet again. Several large advertisers are boycotting them for publishing hate speech – these are big names like Unilever, Diageo, Pepsi, Starbucks. It will concern facebook, they will probably dial up their investment still further in an effort to stamp this out and their spokespeople will double down on on their well crafted defence based on that. “We are making every effort we can, it’s a tiny minority but while there is hate in the world there will be hate on facebook” I heard one say today. After all ‘we’re just a platform not a publisher per se’. There is one obvious solution which is to declare them to be a platform that publishes and impose the same kind of legal restrictions that apply to other media platforms/publishers/broadcasters. Admittedly these restrictions are not perfect. They differ from country to country, some are exercised through government watchdogs and others through a licensing system. If we go down this route the licensing option is the most effective – break the rules and you lose your license to trade, it is awarded to someone else. Can this be operated for the web – of course it can. Not every country or territory would sign up but if enough did it would flush out very quickly whether facebook were “doing everything we can”. But I think there is a better solution which takes the advertiser boycott to its logical conclusion. Reduce facebook ad revenue to zero by making it redundant as an advertising platform and forcing it to charge for its service. Facebook generates $70 billion in revenues from advertising and its costs are roughly $46 billion. But of course a great deal of its costs are incurred to generate the ad revenue. How much would they be if they focused purely on running a really good social media platform? Let’s take a stab – half? So how much would they have to generate from user subscriptions? About $7.50 per user per year. At $10 p.a. they’d be making a very decent $7 billion operating profit. It’s not quite as simple as that but the point is valid – there is a different business model available to facebook or other competing social media platforms. The challenge is how to force them to look for it. Well that is simple – take away their data advantage by creating platforms that allow people to transact their own data.

It has been estimated that your personal data – what you like, where you go, what you buy, what you watch/read/listen to etc – just as much as you want to share is worth $7,600 p.a. on average to you. Much more for high nett worth people, less for the less well-off but arguably more important. If you only earn $25,000 a year then an extra $2,500 for your data is very attractive (this has been proved – people in emerging markets and students are far more willing to sell their data or attention or opinions). Facebook’s model is based on them taking the commercial advantage for having thousands upon thousands of data points on you. The technology exists to allow you to cut them out the loop and transact your own data with whosoever you choose for your own gain.

With no – or at least much lower – ad revenue facebook and their ilk would have to find a better business model, one where people only hand over their money if they appreciate both the service and the ethics of the business. Would you renew your subscription for a business that allows hate speech or pushes content to you in irresponsible ways? No need for government intervention or business boycott’s – problem solved by giving people the rights to their own data and the means to transact it however they choose.

Hand in the Cookie Jar

Readers familiar with my blogs (how are you both?) will know just how much I dislike ‘digital advertising’. I know it works because advertisers continue to invest in it which must mean it has a ROI of a few percentage points. But that in turn implies that for the vast majority of us, most of the time it is nothing but an irritation. I pay for a few on-line subscriptions to papers and magazines – should I have to look at ads? No different to the physical publications you might say. The model has always been that content is delivered free or heavily subsidised because of ads. In the new model the content may be on-line and it might be the services of a search engine or social media platform but the deal is the same. Ad revenue keeps the cost of your on-line content down and in the case of google and facebook the ads pay for the whole thing. On that basis we should extend the model to include churches, museums, art galleries – why not hospitals? You can go to church for free as long as you are prepared to let someone sell you life insurance. By all means look at the Monet but right next to it, in your eye-line, is an ad for french cologne. While you are waiting for your test results who would object to looking at some ads for a betting company – hey, life’s a gamble. NO, there are just some places and some occasions when I don’t want to have to see ads. And I particularly don’t want to see ads put there because someone’s been sneakily following me around all day watching my every move. So in my case at church, or the museum or in the doctor’s waiting room I get an ad for a car just because I happened to mention to a friend that I liked it or paused to look in a showroom window. That is beyond irritating, it’s plain rude.

I reached a tipping point this week. As I was reading on-line I was being bombarded with ads for backgammon boards – and I mean bombarded. They were not just there, they were flashing and rotating and popping up in the middle of the articles. I knew why – I’d been on a couple of sites looking to buy a backgammon board. I’d done my research, made my choice and the board had been purchased. I wasn’t really in the market for another backgammon board, you really only need one, but yet here I was getting hit by ad after ad all over the sites I visit. I know why, it is because Criteo, the French Ad tech business use 3rd party cookies to track me and sell that information to advertisers and their agencies. They profit from this transaction but I don’t. Turns out it is actually possible to disable them, which I did and the pushy creepy ads disappeared . Some algorithms are doubtless still at work but there at least seems to be some randomness to the ads. If they happen to be for something that interests me I’ll click. I did that recently for ‘Forever Spin’. I have a childish fascination with spinning tops and often spin coins or rings to see how long I can get them to keep going. ‘Forever Spin’ tops go on for ages (but not forever) and actually I might buy one. However, before I switched off Criteo I was going off them as a company due to the incessant ads they were targeting at me. Do you, like me, walk out of a shop if a sales assistant just won’t leave you alone? Normally you can tell them that you’re just browsing and they will back off. I have been known to tell them that if they don’t back off I’m leaving. Hard to do with digital advertisers. Not so easy to tell them to fuck off and leave you alone as long as they have their hands in the cookie jar. And they will even if you manage to disable 3rd party cookies. All the times we accept that the web sites use cookies and give them our permission to download them onto our hard drives, we are saying it is OK to track our browsing history, analyse the data and make commercial use of it. We can’t see it happening, we get a very small share of the commercial benefit, if any, and we have to put up with digital ads that are mostly pointless and very rarely entertaining. The only solution, as I have outlined before, is to use block chain technology to allow us to transact our own data as individuals. Then they would have to fuck off and leave us alone.