I began writing Terms of Use as a thought exercise focused on the trade-offs we all make when we provide our data to companies that offer us “free” Internet services.


There are countless companies that fit this description, but most of all, we’re talking about the titans of the Internet: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, etc. Never before has it been possible to collect the huge reservoirs of information that today’s Internet giants have amassed on each and every one of us – one search, one page view, one comment, one “like,” one photo, one purchase at a time.

That’s the obvious stuff, but they are also collecting “passive” information: how long you linger or look at something, where you come from on the web, the times of day you surf the web, etc. This is the most insidious type of information, because it can be reassembled to help these companies enrich their understanding of you in ways you do not expect. In short, they know far more about us than we realize and it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Edward Snowden revealed the NSA had been siphoning a “high volume” of our data from Google and Yahoo.

Privacy advocates went nuts, but most of us simply buried our heads in the sand and hopefully said: “I’m not a terrorist, so they are not interested in me.” It may (or may not) be true that the NSA isn’t interested in you. But the Facebooks and the Googles are most certainly interested in everything you do online. By correlating all your data with their data streams, tech companies have developed intimate user profiles that include all sorts of personal details, opinions, habits, tastes, preferences, relationships and affiliations. It's virtually impossible to use the web as a nontechnical user without leaving rich metadata about yourself everywhere you go.

Information is power; it is also extremely valuable to these companies. We already accept that they mine our data to uncover patterns, make recommendations and bombard us with advertising. In the last few years they’ve made huge strides with their ability to anticipate events that haven’t happened yet. What happens as these companies become more sophisticated in their ability to effectively manipulate us and influence outcomes?

This was my starting point for Terms of Use: How might a large Internet company with advanced data mining and predictive analytics capabilities use – or more to the point, misuse – our data in the future? It was not very hard to spin out all sorts of scenarios and writing a novel seemed like a good way to have some fun with a very serious issue.

I was well into my novel by the time Facebook revealed in an academic paper last year that it had manipulated the news feeds of almost 700,000 users to see if it could affect people’s emotions. The company declared success; and based on its decision to publish those results, it would seem Facebook was quite proud of its achievement. So while I started writing Terms of Use as a thought exercise, it turns out that Facebook has been doing the real experiments.


Authorscott allan morrison