Reuben Binns

Researching Personal Data

Category Archives: ethics

Help! My friend has turned into a social media marketing page.

I had a friend who became a marketing channel. Or rather, I had a friend whose personal online profile has now been turned into a social media marketing page for a new business venture. According to Facebook’s ‘See Friendship’ feature, I have been ‘friends’ with this person / entity since November 2008. I can’t be sure who he/she/it used to be before undergoing this incorporeal incorporation. Surgical editing of their profile timeline has removed most of its congenital human appendages, leaving an almost convincing post-op commercial presence.

Why did this happen? Twitter-savvy careers advisors and professional networking experts have long been encouraging recession-era graduates to leverage their personal networks for professional gain. In a time where social media interns get paid (or more often, don’t get paid) to generate ever more Likes and Followers, ‘cashing in’ one’s pre-existing social network may seem like a logical shortcut to building an ‘audience’ for your brand.

If I were feeling mean, I could report this friend of mine for violation of Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy, which insists that maintaining a profile for anything other than an individual person is a violation of their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. One might think one reason for such a rule is to prevent precisely this kind of practice. The possibility that your friends might at any time turn themselves into a brand, and you, by extension, into a potential customer, seems more like a bug than a feature.

But I suspect Facebook’s real names policy has more to do with their crusade against anonymity than moral repugnance regarding the commodification of friendship. In fact, they provide an official ‘Migration Tool‘ by which you can turn your personal profile into a bona-fide business page, converting your friends into Likes. (Quite why my former friend stopped short of this final stage, forgoing legal recognition of their transformation, I do not know.) Much like U.S. jurisprudence has granted corporations the status of people, so Facebook’s policy appears to grant people official status as marketing channels.

As it stands, I’m unsure how to react to the changes my friend has undergone. I feel queasy about marketing pages on Facebook even when they are ‘born’ that way; being encouraged to make public displays of affection towards brands and products, even when I feel some affinity towards them, irks me. Should I ‘un-friend’ this virtual presence? I have no interest in the product it is trying to sell. But I can’t help thinking that somewhere beneath the promotional photographs, product offers and job opportunities, there is a ghost in the machine; the remains of a ‘real’ personal profile, with hilarious status updates, holiday pictures, and friendships which might, one day, be brought back to life.


Advert! Avert!

Photo courtesy of flickr user AudreyH (CC-BY-NC-SA)

This is a follow-up to my last post, in which I argue that one of the copyright industry’s favourite arguments against digital piracy can be generalised to other ways of consuming media – including watching ad-supported content whilst ignoring the ads.

Some of the main objections from those who read the piece include (I hope I’m faithfully representing them here):

Advertisers know and expect that many people will ignore their adverts, so there’s no obligation to watch/click on them. My answer is that the same thing could be said about the copyright industries, who know and expect that their content will be copied in a variety of infringing ways by many people. They take this risk, hoping that enough people will pay to make their investment worthwhile.

If there aren’t enough people clicking on adverts to sustain the future creation of the content, it doesn’t matter because publishers and/or advertisers will change their business models to support future content. Again, the same can be said about the copyright model; it doesn’t matter if there aren’t enough people paying for their material legitimately through current channels, because content providers (whether artists themselves or their publishers) will eventually change their business models. And in fact, this is already happening. This heartening industry report from the folks at TechDirt charts the growth of alternative business models for the creative industries, which have nothing to do with copyright enforcement.

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that ignoring adverts is legally equivalent to digital piracy. I agree that legally/contractually speaking, copyright owners have every right to prosecute digital pirates, while no-one has such right with regards to ‘advert ignorers’. But the free-rider argument deployed by the copyright industries is a moral argument, the purpose of which is to convince us that copyright law as it stands is worth adhering to. It’s no good claiming that piracy is different to ignoring adverts because there are pre-existing laws and expectations regarding piracy, but different laws/expectations regarding ignoring adverts. Such an argument has no force against digital pirates, who we can assume have very different expectations and don’t believe in the laws as they currently stand. What they need is a independent reason to pay for content via legitimate channels – and the main one offered so far (the free-rider argument) unfortunately generalises to another, seemingly innocent, practice; ignoring adverts.

Finally, it was suggested that the free-rider argument could be given either a consequentialist or a ‘contractualist’ interpretation, and the latter might not generalise to advert-ignorers. I think there is an important distinction between contractualism as ethical theory and as legal theory. The first could serve as a sound justification for the law, while the second is merely a description of the law and fails to have independent moral force against pirates for the same reasons outlined above. Perhaps you could have a moral defence of copyright in contractualist terms, but that would be a different argument and certainly not something that copyright defenders routinely appeal to.

Finally, @oliverbills brough up the history and future of automatically blocking adverts in the browser, noting how pop-up ads were killed by browser plugins, only to be replaced by something else. It certainly does seem like an arms race which is likely to continue for a long while yet. The better we (or our browsers) get at ignoring/ blocking adverts out, the better they will get at attracting our attention and circumventing browser plugins. The one form of advertising I can think of which is immune to this is product placement in films. I don’t imagine we’ll see a plugin capable of blocking out, say, Tom Cruise’s RayBan sunglasses in Risky Business any time soon.

Is ignoring adverts morally equivalent to digital piracy?

Is downloading copyright-infringing material morally wrong?

It’s a question which the more conscientious members of my generation have probably asked themselves at some point. My best answer to date is still an unsatisfying “Sometimes yes, sometimes no”. There are dozens of different ways of looking at it, and it really does just depend.

Those who believe it is wrong (and have given some thought to the justification of their belief), tend to settle on a couple of distinct arguments. For me, the most compelling is based on the idea that by engaging in piracy, you are undermining the creation of the very thing you enjoy. If you don’t pay anything for the content you consume – whether it is music, film or literature – then future works may not be created. Thus, the problem is that piracy is a kind of ‘free ride’ (indeed, this was the title of a recent book on the subject).

Now, clearly, there are several bones which one could pick here: if you wouldn’t have paid for the media anyway then consuming it illegally it makes no difference; so-called ‘piracy’ is often the basis for new creativity: and the funnel between copyright industry revenues and pure creative activity is hardly direct, so we are only morally obliged to pay a fraction of the current prices. But let’s go along with the ‘free-ride’ argument for now, as it seems to be one that most reasonable and outspoken critics of file-sharing turn to.

My question then, is this: if piracy is wrong because it is a kind of free-ride, is ignoring adverts when enjoying ad-supported media any different? How many of us avert our gaze from the banners beside our favourite news site or social media platform? How many people mute the TV during breaks in shows, skip sponsored videos on YouTube, or even use a browser plugin to block out all adverts from the web? The content we enjoy consuming from these spaces can only survive by allowing companies to effectively advertise their products and eventually get consumers to part with their cash. If we don’t even at least look at some of these ads, let alone click on them, aren’t we undermining the future creation of the very material we enjoy?

Of course, there are differences between an ad-supported vs paid business model. But if what makes digital piracy wrong is that it is free-riding, then this should generalise to any business model. If you want to ensure the future creation of content, then you have to play along with whatever it is that sustains that content. This is true whether that means paying for copyrighted media, or subjecting your eyeballs to the adverts that support it.

This conclusion, that ignoring adverts is wrong, may strike the reader as rather strange. How could something that we do every day, without even thinking, be morally wrong? At which point the habitual file-sharer says: ‘Exactly’. If you don’t see anything wrong with ignoring the adverts that sustain your free content, then you shouldn’t see anything wrong with file-sharers ignoring the copyright model that sustains their free content. Conversely, if you still think piracy is wrong, then you’d better start clicking on those ads once in a while.