Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I spend a lot of time--too much, really--on Facebook.  I do it because (a) I'm really not accountable to anyone else for my time, most of the time, and (b) it allows me to keep up with news both important (breaking news of world- or nation-wide significance) and petty (what my friends are up to or thinking about).

And it's free, and you can't beat free.

Gmail, which I use for my personal email, is also free.  In fact, I use a lot of different Google services--maps and navigation, phone apps, and even this blog--that I've never had to pay a dime for.

And lots of other sites I use are free, being mostly advertising-supported.  I feel like I'm getting something for nothing because I rarely click on ads. I'm not as guarded about what I click on as I used to be, but it is a rare day when I spend money as a result of an ad I saw on an internet website.

Of course, I have to pay for my internet connection, but I would be paying for that anyway.

The grocery store where I do most of my shopping, Kroger, is willing to give me all sorts of discounts and incentives if I show them my card whenever I shop there.  In addition to discount prices, they give me 10 cents off per gallon of gasoline for every $100 I spend there.  That's a lot of "free."  (They are kind enough, at times, to give me as much as 10 cents off for every $25 I spend.)

Why on earth is everybody giving away all of these things for free?

Before Prohibition, it was common for bars to provide a "free" meal with the purchase of at least one drink.  These meals were composed of salty, fatty foods, the consumption of which would stimulate thirst, which would--in theory--produce more sales of high-margin alcoholic beverages.  (This tradition lives on, in a much diminished form, in the provision of salty peanuts, popcorn, and the like at your finer and not-finer drinking establishments in fair cities around this great nation of ours.)

During Prohibition, there wasn't much need to stimulate alcohol sales, the ban being incentive enough to drive demand.

The Great Depression, whose arrival ushered out Prohibition and other high-minded Republican ideas, saw the return of the "free" lunch at a time when it was sorely needed.  But folks needed to be reminded, of course, that there's no truly free lunch--it required the purchase of a drink, the price of which was often difficult to muster.

I say all of this to raise the issue of what the price of all these "free" goodies happens to be.

And I don't think it would surprise anybody to learn that there is great value in keeping track of what people talk about with their friends, and look at when they're shirking their work, and buy from the grocery store, and where they go and whom they email about what.

My friends, if you use any of these "free" services, you should know, first and foremost, that you are the product that is being sold.

Your eyes and ears.

Your data.

You and I aren't Google's customers.  Google cares about making our experience online a pleasant one, but not because they are pleasing us as customers.

We are Google's product.  Google's business is delivering eyeballs and information to people--well, not people, exactly, but corporations--that are willing to pay for it, all on the theory that those eyeballs and information will transform into revenue through one mechanism or another.  Google has to keep us happy, because without us, Google has no product to sell.

We are Kroger's customers, of course.  But Kroger recognizes that by giving us strong incentives to allow them to track our purchases with precision, it can sell that information to manufacturers, who use it to tailor products and advertising so as to raise revenues.

I'm not sure how comfortable I feel about these relationships.  After all, I've grown accustomed to the convenience of these services, and I'm certainly as addicted to "free" as anyone.  I could replace Google Maps with a dedicated GPS device.  I could run my own blog server (I have the capacity to do it, but Blogger makes it so easy).  I could run my own email (and, in fact, I do, for my business emails).

I could even forego the discounts at Kroger by paying in cash, not showing my card, when I shop there.

But I don't, because of inertia, or sloth, or carelessness.

The National Security Agency has been in the headlines--and I've blogged about it--for spying on Americans.  I have no doubt that the NSA vacuums up every bit of data it can grab, and stores it for later use, and uses it whenever there is a "need" for it.  That strikes some people, a lot of people, as unbelievably invasive of privacy.  It strikes me as horribly unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ... .

In the 18th century, there was no concept of telephone calls or electronic documents like email.  But it is no stretch at all to consider telephone calls and emails to be "papers."  After all, what makes "papers" something that anyone would want to have privacy over isn't their physical form but their content--the very thing that makes telephone calls and emails useful to the NSA.

It is no exaggeration to say that how the courts deal with this issue might be the most significant Constitutional question of the 21st century.  We face a clear choice, a right one and a wrong one, and I have little confidence in these courts, these days, to make the right choice.

I suppose you could say that it is perfectly reasonable for something to be untoward if done by the government but reasonable and legitimate if done by a private entity.  After all, private entities cannot act without your agreement to allow them to do so.  There is the notion of consent.  Just because you don't have the time, energy, or intellect to read through every Terms of Service document doesn't mean that those terms don't apply.  And let's face it:  You're going to agree even if it makes you uncomfortable, because you want the "free" lunch.

The trouble is, that applies to government and corporate actors alike.  If you consent--and by using these "free" services, you definitely do--to incursions by private entities into your personal papers and effects, why is it so unreasonable for the government to get a crack, too?


But even if I can't articulate it, it makes me uncomfortable.  I suspect the root of my discomfort is that I still believe in the Fourth Amendment--and all of the Constitution.  We are supposed to be better than this.  Our forebears long ago made a choice to limit the power of the government.  Our ideas about how our Constitutional government ought to work have evolved from what Madison and Hamilton thought, but the arc of that evolution is clearly bent toward freedom and individuality, not to security and fascism.

There are two principles here at work.  As to the government, we must reacquaint ourselves with the idea that it is better to be a dead freeman than a living slave.  What the NSA is doing in the name of protecting us from enemies must be stopped, even if the cost is that some people will die at the hands of terrorists. There are those who would do us harm, yes--but if we give up who we are in the course of protecting ourselves, what's the point?

(I hasten to point out that it must be stopped through the political process, by people who have courage and conviction. Arming oneself against a government with cruise missiles is a fool's errand.)

The second principle, which is related to the first, is one best illustrated by a story from the Bible.  It might surprise you to see me tell a Bible story, but the comparison is so apt that I cannot help myself.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, was married to Rebekah.  Rebekah bore Isaac two sons, twins, Esau and Jacob.  Esau, the first-born, under the tradition of the times (known as primogeniture), was entitled by birth-right to receive the entirety of his father's estate at death.  One day, Esau returned home from a day in the fields, famished, and begged his brother Jacob for some of the stew Jacob had for his evening meal.  Jacob agreed, on the condition that Esau grant him the birth-right.  Esau, mad with hunger, agreed, and in so doing, gave up all that he had for the comfort of a day.

No one forced Esau to enter into this contract with Jacob.  He did so willingly, even eagerly. Prophecy aside, it was an unfair deal.  It should be a warning.

I fear a government that believes it may do what the NSA is doing, let alone "should" or "must."  But I fear even more the influence of grand corporate interests who feel bold enough to offer us only a dish of red pottage for something so important.  We are indeed in need of protection, but not from terrorists.

Our privacy is part of our birthright as Americans.  It was hard-won by our forebears and secured to us by men who were wise beyond the age in which they lived.  It would be a shame to sell it for a handful of maps and status updates.

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