The Erosion of Democracy is Your Fault.

Accepting Whatsapp’s new terms of service means you are passively supporting the storming of Capitol Hill and the slow erosion of democracy.

Let me explain. This morning started like any other, a quick check of WhatsApp and a scan of BBC news. Harmless enough. Only today, WhatsApp told me that by February the 8th I would have to sign up to their new terms of service or look elsewhere for a messaging service. Then on the BBC I watched as people stormed in to the United States Capitol building.

Two seemingly unrelated events, but in my mind, no two minutes from my life over the last decade has more perfectly summed up the challenge we now face as a society.

Whatsapp’s new terms of service is yet another cut in a game of death by 1000 cuts. Each of those cuts represent the slow and steady erosion of our privacy over the last decade and those cuts all add up to significantly undermine democracy.

First let’s be clear, Whatsapp’s new terms of service increasingly erodes your privacy. Agreeing to their new terms means more information about you, your contacts, your activities, location and financial transactions can be dumped in to the wider Facebook data ecosystem.

But it still seems like a big jump to say signing up to this is contributing to undermining our democracy doesn’t it? The trouble is, that’s the exact problem. The connection is very subtle.

To understand why it’s so subtle you need to understand that Facebook’s business model is to sell adverts.

It sells more adverts and makes more money if you spend more time on their platform. So Facebook invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year to keep your attention and therefore increase your engagement with their platform.

The main way Facebook keeps your attention is by broadcasting you media. But unlike other broadcasters, Facebook is unregulated and has total control over where to draw the line between what is and isn’t acceptable to broadcast to its 2.7 billion followers.

It’s intrinsically bad for Facebook’s business to limit the dissemination of content that garners high engagement. It’s well documented that this leads to echo chambers, provides a platform for hyper-extreme beliefs and facilitates the dissemination of conspiracy theories.

So to summarise, the gradual, almost imperceptible erosion of our privacy feeds this machine. More data about us leads to better optimised content which leads to more time on the platform which leads to more ads sold. The spread of vitriol and untruths is an unfortunate by-product. But no one’s stopping them from doing it, so as long as they make token appeasements to governments, they get to keep control of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

This is not a new insight. This is a known problem and it’s growing.

On an individual level your information seems like a tiny drop in the data ocean of humanity. But multiply that by the over the 2.7 billion people in Facebook’s user base and it is almost half of the world’s available data ocean.

The equation is simple;

Subtle creep of privacy standards

x

Unregulated control of the content

x

2.7 billion users

= Unfathomable profit and the type of power no other company, government or monarch has ever had in the history of humanity.

It’s clear our governments are utterly powerless and too slow to react. Perversely this system is helping put people in power who will clearly rally against tearing it down.

I’m not even sure the executives at social media companies have ability to change it now. The Silicon Valley mantra of hyper-growth has gone beyond their control, it’s a runway mutant that no single person can stop.

So because neither of these entities are able to change the status quo, it’s been left to us. It’s your fault if you click accept on Whatsapp’s new terms without question. There is a direct link between clicking accept and physically storming the Capitol Building.

We need to shake ourselves awake. If you’re passive, you are contributing to this system. You have to power to say no. Join the swell of people migrating off Whatsapp and Facebook owned services to Signal and other privacy first providers. The time is now. It’s up to you.

Engineer and privacy evangelist. CEO and Co-founder of hazy.com — a privacy first synthetic data company.