Put down your pitchforks, data collection isn’t all bad

The data collection abilities of websites like Facebook, Google, and their countless subsidiaries can be terrifying. A private conversation with someone on the topic of hedgehogs can lead to advertisements for hedgehog homes appearing on everything you read for weeks. As adorable as that may sound, it is a reminder of the sinister fact that everything we do online is converted into a profile and sold to the highest bidder.

However, there is another side to the overly-invasive coin of “Big Data”. Facebook is free. Youtube is free. Google is free. You want to learn how to build a go kart using things bought in walmart? Here you go. You don’t want to pay a hundred quid for a satnav? Have one for free in your phone. If you want to learn anything, talk to anyone, or fly a plane over the surface of Mars using Google earth, you can do so for free, and the only thing to thank for that is the data collection of social media.

None of these feats are cheap to perform – the amount of storage space needed for a day’s worth of Youtube videos alone would be astronomical. By recording your activity, and selling it in the form of data, these corporations have kept the best bits of the internet from being locked behind a paywall. If you think we should swap to a system more like Netflix, Spotify, or Amazon Prime, please note that all of these companies do the exact same thing, and just make the money they get from selling your data on top of your subscription fee.

If you could put down your pitchforks; this isn’t a defense of the way things currently work. There obviously needs to be change, but we need to be careful to keep one foot off the “Big Data is evil” bandwagon. It can certainly be used for evil, and we need to legislate to prevent that as soon as possible, but it has also kept the internet largely free and open to all for years. Don’t throw it away without trying to improve it.


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Digby Mason