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Issue 8

Boomers’ Guide to Gen Z: Intro to Texting 101

Gen Z in its natural online habitat can seem intimidating and a little baffling. I would know, despite technically being a part of this generation, I spend more time than I’d like to admit deciphering it. If you’ve ever had to google what “afaik” or “iykyk” means then this is for you. Texting etiquette is central to Gen Z culture, highlighting how we’ve expertly moulded language to create communities and best express ourselves online. 

I’m risking my fragile membership by undermining the very first principle of Gen Z communication: don’t explain it. Two things happen then: first, it’s not as funny anymore and second, it may open up the community to potential detractors. Remember the wildfire term “on fleek”? as soon as it spread too far like on the Ellen Show, it immediately lost all its charm. 

Although there is no consensus on Gen Z’s age, suffice it to say that we don’t remember a time before the Internet. Most are already tired of Facebook after having joined back in school, instead migrating over to Instagram—away from constantly being tagged in embarrassing family photos. That said, we do simultaneously possess an instinctive understanding of this ‘culture’ while being unable to explain it to anyone or ourselves. So, here’s to trying: 

Let’s start simple: texting or calling? 

Easy, texting. Of course, as with anything, there are outliers who would disagree. However, it’s common practice to watch the phone ring into oblivion and then immediately text: “hey, you called?”. 

Texting unfolds throughout a busy day of multi-tasking. We text in windows between or during online classes, while taking a break or just in bed procrastinating sleep. That’s not to say we’re anti-calling, it just costs us an exponentially larger amount of effort given our waning attention spans. Texting is great for a quick dopamine fix and we’ve been wired to love the ring of a notification ever since some got their first smartphones at 12. When we call, we are required to focus on nothing but the person’s voice. In other words, it’s a big deal. So if a gen z-er in your life offers to call, take it as the ego-boost that it is. 

Now that we’re talking texting, what are some dos and don’ts?

Seen-zoning is a thing, and possibly a social weapon of war so, beware. 

This one is difficult to pin down, sometimes it’s intentional and sometimes it simply isn’t. In budding romantic relationships, leaving someone ‘on read’ is often a carefully cultivated art of courtship. For example: “I want to text them, but I don’t want them to think they’re all I think about. Wait, are they all I think about?” which can then spiral into dangerous overthinking territory. This rationale prompts some of us to leave texts unattended for a pre-selected range of hours. 

In new friendships, it can become a matter of not seeming too eager but eager enough. In unwanted interactions or advances, it’s often a retreat onto safer shores. Sometimes, it’s just thinking that you already replied or just not having the energy to tend to all your burgeoning messages. It’s safe to say that no one has those blue-ticks switched on anymore. 

Source: @jaboukie on Twitter

Ghosting, on the other hand, is a harsh reality when seen-zoning is taken to its extreme. This is when a person stops texting you cold-turkey, and fades away first from your phone and then life. Needless to say, this is the nuclear missile in your arsenal of social weapons: only last-resort, and always destructive.

Source: https://tinderandblind.com/category/contributor/

Irony is the key 

Too many exclamation marks or emojis in one text is, as we like to say, just not it. However, if you do it ironically? That’s a different story. It’s a subtle art of balancing out the unassuming enthusiasm we encounter in family groups while showing that we’re not serious about it. For example, you’ll see gen z gravitating towards (too many) off-center emojis for the desired effect. 

To flip this over, some just won’t use any emojis at all. 

Instead, they’ll use 🙂 or a :)) or a ^___^ but rarely a 😀 and god forbid if someone goes for a xD unironically. They can all mean different things too, a 🙂 can be a naively friendly ending to a text, passive aggression or sometimes just plain anguish. 

Exhibit A: “i just got my 5th assignment of the day haha i love college :))))))))))” 

Translation: They don’t love college. 

Choose Your Own Case 

Notice the all lower-case register? This is for when you want to present yourself as nonchalant as it contains the non-verbal signal of informality. To achieve this, it’s best to blacklist autocorrect off your phone. 

Speaking of lower and upper-case, we like to switch things up or “sWiTch tHinGs uP”. This is the texting equivalent of siblings fighting when one mocks the other as soon as they turn away.

Source: https://knowyourmeme.com/

Gen Z humour is absurdist and cryptic. It’s gratifying to have something that only you and your friends can laugh at, while your parents shoot you their best “what did I do wrong” look. 

Source: posted by u/Explodernator343, Reddit

To Full-stop or Not to Full-stop

In a 2015 study, participants rated “texts that ended with a period as less sincere than those that did not” while no such difference was found for handwritten notes. This can be confusing: should one subvert grammatical rules for the sake of appearing amiable to a gen-zer? Linguist Lauren Collister calls herself a “code-switcher”, mirroring the texting tendencies of the recipient: if someone is informal, then she might drop the uppercase but if someone ends with a period, then she does too. 

The way we communicate is no less better or worse than how older generations used to—it’s just different. Every generation, be it the Boomers, Gen X or Millenials all created their own vocabulary, finding respite in the exclusivity of an inside joke. If Gen Z is starting to show the tell-tale signs of a cult, then you’re well on your way to understanding and maybe even moonlighting as one of us—grammatical warts and all. 

Devika is a second-year Economics and Media Studies major, an aspiring coffee-snob and always on the hunt for a new addition to her already overflowing to-be-read list.

Categories
Issue 4

The 5G Conundrum: Can we achieve carbon neutrality?

On 13th October 2020, Apple unveiled its new lineup of iPhone 12 phones in its virtual Special Event. Like other Apple release events, this too garnered great attention. But this time, fans were divided over Apple’s decision to not include the charging brick and earphones from further on. 

Apple’s website claims that the company’s decision to revamp its packaging and not include the charging block and earphone is one step among many towards their goal of making all products carbon neutral by 2030. But the introduction of 5G into its devices raises an important question. Is the company really contributing to offset carbon emissions, even beyond its sale to the consumer?

These new iPhones will be the first smartphones from Apple that feature 5G connectivity. Samsung released its first all-5G smartphone in March this year. Companies like Google and Nokia followed suit. As technology continues to rapidly progress, in the next few years or maybe even sooner, mid-range and low-end smartphones from other companies will surely include 5G.  Like Apple, these companies will also advertise their phones’ 5G feature. Assuming that the use of 5G will be widespread, it is pivotal that we look at how sustainable it is.

According to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report, 53.6% of the global population or more than 4 billion people use the internet. From sending emails to searching, all of our actions on the internet result in carbon emissions. To allow data transmission on such a large scale, enormous amounts of energy is required to operate servers, cloud services and run data centers. The carbon footprint of this, along with what results from the usage of our devices, results in colossal units of greenhouse gas emissions. BBC reports this amount to be almost 1.7 billion tonnes every year. 

Conversations around carbon emissions rarely examine the effects of internet data centres. According to a 2019 Greenpeace report, the internet conglomerate, Amazon, backtracked from its commitment to using 100% clean energy to operate its data centres as it expanded. It was found that Amazon’s data centres in Virginia were powered by only 12% of renewable energy. When WIRED reached out to Amazon for comments, it received no reply from the web service giant. 

Events like these create anxieties for a world that has been ravaged by several disasters due to global warming which has been a direct consequence of exorbitant levels of carbon emissions. 

The dilemma posed by the need to have more technologies is concerning not just for big companies and environmental organizations but also to the average person. In June 2018, CBS reported that wireless companies in the US would have to install 300,000 new transmission antennas for the rollout of 5G connectivity. The reason for this is because the higher frequency requires antennas to be closer for optimum usage. This was alarming to some residents in Maryland, as they were concerned that increasing the number of transmission towers would drive down the property values in their neighborhoods. While this was the prime concern, residents were reluctant to have these towers installed in front of their homes also because of possible health risks these towers posed due to radiation, although most studies found no correlation. 

It would not be pragmatic for us to look at only one end of the internet consumption chain. Much of the onus to create a sustainable internet also falls on the consumer. 

Our addiction to social media, video streaming, tending to notifications and other habits online necessitate faster connections. For instance, in the last decade, online video streaming has shifted from a standard 480p quality format to much higher resolutions. These require considerable bandwidth. A study found out that online video altogether spawns 60% of the world’s data flow and emits more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. 

Important stakeholders in terms of video streaming are Over-the-top (OTT) media services like Netflix. Such streaming platforms have revolutionized the way we have been consuming media. The releasing of television shows at one go allows for people to binge-view content. Much like social media, it is incredibly easy to get addicted to Netflix. 

Such consumption has impacts on the politics of everyday life. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken’s research on the nature of spoilers of TV shows suggests that spoiling shows by revealing plots has shifted from being a faux pas to giving one social power. It can be deduced from this that people would not want to miss out on popular TV shows because of the cultural capital it allows one to have, and also, they would want to consume it as soon as possible so that they have the upper hand when it comes to spoilers. 

Since OTT platforms have supplanted itself as a prominent cultural fixture in these past few years, it is not surprising that 5G connectivity will provide greater convenience for the consumer to access a multitude of shows anytime, in high resolutions, across several kinds of devices including Apple’s new 5G iPhones. The demand will be fueled by more popular content and people will want to get in on it. The ramifications will include a much greater carbon footprint. 

Along with our subsequent shift to virtual reality, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated our internet habits. The carbon emissions from our internet use have skyrocketed due to this. It would be incredibly ignorant to overlook the implications of our internet use on the environment. The consumer is responsible to cultivate green internet habits and reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. With companies like Apple pledging to be carbon neutral, governments and environmental organizations need to check whether they are actually achieving these agendas. As the 5G technology expands its reach, all stakeholders must assess whether it would really make a difference before signing up for new subscriptions. While Apple’s new packaging might be a step in the right decision, the company, along with other manufacturers, still have work to do in order to reduce carbon emissions. 

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Issue 3

Divorced from Reality: Why are we attracted to the Disinformation Ecosystem?

Is the Covid-19 virus an act of bioterrorism? Was Sushant Singh Rajput murdered by the entrenched “insider” Bollywood mafia? Is there a paedophilic deep state about to take over the world (QAnon)? Was the moon landing faked? Do vaccines cause autism? Is global warming a hoax? Was there a second shooter on that grassy knoll on 22nd November, 1963? Was 9/11 engineered by the US government? 

No matter how many times scientific evidence refutes these new and old claims/conspiracy theories and fake news, legions of people continue to believe in them. Before we examine the primary reasons for continued belief in fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation etc. let us first pin down the widely accepted definitions of these various terms in the ‘information pollution ecosystem’. According to a report by the State Department of the United States, ‘The Weapons of Mass Distraction’,

misinformation is generally understood as the inadvertent sharing of false information that is not intended to cause harm, just as disinformation or fake news is widely defined as the purposeful dissemination of false information. Conspiracy theories are narratives about events or situations, that allege there are secret plans to carry out sinister deeds.”

What makes this false information ecosystem so pervasive and appealing in an age of instant access to legitimate news sources? 

Despite claims that all of these forms of “information pollution” have multiplied manifolds due to the technology now available, it is important to remember that all of these “pollutants” have thrived throughout known human history. So, for all the technological changes which have inarguably turbocharged the breadth and depth of the dissemination, possibly the single most important element for fake news and conspiracies to thrive has remained unchanged i.e.  the inherent human biases and behaviours which are exploited to feed the engine of this false information ecosystem.

There is a vast amount of empirical evidence emanating from psychology, sociology and communication to show that human beings are not always rational in their beliefs and behaviours, including the kind and sources of information they choose to consume and believe. Research shows that many of us buy into alternative explanations because the world is a big, scary, chaotic place and we crave a sense of belonging and identity and prefer immediate, comforting answers. There are several explanations for why a lot of us are attracted to fake news and conspiracy theories.

Neuroscience has shown that our limbic system is kickstarted into looking for patterns and explanations for threat recognition, evaluation and solutions when confronted with difficult, uncontrollable situations like a disease outbreak or earthquake. This is called illusory pattern perception – our propensity to detect patterns where none exist – and this is pretty much hardwired into our brains. Researchers posit that this tendency evolved as a defence mechanism for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to detect and avoid danger. This tendency to see patterns or conspiracies when dealing with an unfathomable phenomenon spawns any number of theories such as what we are witnessing with the Covid-19 crisis – from 5G towers to bioterrorism to Bill Gates spreading the infection to market a world conquering vaccine. 

Second, there is the principle of confirmation bias, which refers to our tendency to search for information that is congruent with our existing beliefs. Conceding that we are mistaken about something is a tough thing for most of us to do and it is especially so for beliefs and ideas that are fundamental to our worldview. Therefore, we cling even harder to ideas, evidence and information which confirm our worldview and ignore any contradictory information. Cue the now familiar concepts of “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” of our algorithm led newsfeeds which keep us comfortably ensconced in our comfort zone of like-minded people, facts and opinions on social media – the subject of so much policy debates. And the more the same material is repeated the more we believe it to be true, also called the illusory truth effect. A related concept which lends credence to oft repeated information (true or false) by those in our circle or important others is that of social proof (if my social group believes it, it must be true).

Third, humans are cognitively lazy. Our brains work in a dual processing mode where for most of the time we are on autopilot (System 1), take in information on face value and make intuitive decisions which are good enough (satisficing) without critically appraising it for veracity. We conserve our cognitive energy for more “important tasks” which require us to take a more rational, well-thought, informed, and reflective approach (System 2).  Research shows that over 90% of the time in the entire lives, our information processing and decision-making happens in the system 1 mode and this may result in choosing to believe the fake news report rather than digging deeper to verify it. 

Fourth, let’s look at proportionality bias which is our tendency to believe that large events have large causes. The idea that just one guy with a gun (Lee Harvey Oswald) could murder one of the most powerful people in the world (President John F Kennedy) is unsatisfying, and we intuitively search for bigger forces at work. That is why multiple conspiracy theories of government, mafia and foreign involvement seem more reasonable despite the evidence otherwise.

Fifth, we have the exact opposite of cognitive laziness i.e.  motivated reasoning or the tendency to apply higher scrutiny to ideas that are inconsistent with our beliefs.  We use motivated reasoning to further our quest for social identity and belonging. Further, research shows that naïve realism plays an important role during the consumption and evaluation of information. Naïve realism results in our belief that only our perception of social reality is accurate and based in facts and that those who disagree are simply ignorant or unreasonable. 

Interestingly, an important predictor of belief in conspiracy theories is past belief in another one. So once you believe a sinister cabal engineered one event, it becomes much more likely that you’ll look for shadowy cabals at every opportunity. And that is another problem: sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be right. Watergate did happen, the CIA did conspire to topple governments, scientists did visit unimaginable horrors on human subjects during “medical experiments”.  Proven conspiracies unveiled after much investigation open the door to conjecture about other events with alternate plausible explanations. 

Another reason for believing in disinformation is our own sense of morality as a proxy for that of other people. So, people who think they themselves might create a deadly disease (for whatever reason) are likely to believe that scientists created AIDS or Covid-19 in a lab. Political extremism also leads people to question the narrative of the establishment. Being less educated or having less money is also associated with a tendency to believe fake news, although this could be partly because belonging to lower socio-economic categories is also associated with greater feelings of disenfranchisement, less control over one’s life and greater uncertainty, which in turn makes conspiracy theories more appealing. And last but not the least there is a certain sexiness to fake news – it is very “novel” and mostly negative – two features that attract human attention much more than cold, hard, verified facts.

The internet facilitates the spread of disinformation faster than ever before and this ecosystem of false information can have a powerful effect on our behaviour. Studies have shown that fake news and conspiracy theories can lead to lower participation in politics, lower vaccination rates, disregard of scientific or medical advice, reduction in environment friendly behaviours, even incite murders and killing sprees. So, it’s imperative to understand why people continue to believe disinformation despite factual, verifiable evidence to the contrary. What it is in our own minds that can make any person vulnerable to believing in this disinformation is also important to locate, is the place to begin.

Purnima Mehrotra is the Associate Director – Research and Capacity Building at the Centre for Social and Behavioural Change, Ashoka University. She has experience across industries – education, research, advertising and non-profit.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Uncategorized

To End or Not to End Privacy

Imagine, if you will, a murder. Some letters are found, all written in a strange language. In Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” it took Sherlock Holmes to decipher such a script and find the murderer.

Inventing a secret language is rather difficult, except that we now have standardized ways to do it: encryption algorithms. Essentially, we have language-inventing software, which can create different languages based on a secret password. If you know the password, you can translate the language back into plain English. Today’s techniques produce incredibly secure ciphers that would leave even Holmes clueless. 

This has led to governments trying to subvert or weaken cryptography. Inevitably, every time an atrocity occurs, we hear this argument again and again. Donald Trump has stated that the US should be able to “penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS.” It was perhaps David Cameron who best articulated this sentiment: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people, which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, that we cannot read? … are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn’t possible to do that? My answer is no, we are not.” The justification, of course, is that these powers are needed by “intelligence agencies and security agencies and policing in order to keep our people safe.”

The “deal”, then, is this: You can communicate securely, as long as you make the encryption easy enough for The Government to decipher. This “easy enough” requirement is currently being enforced by various means, including the infiltration and bribery of companies that produce commercial cryptographic software. Many activists and technologists have written about the ethical problems with having a government that is capable of snooping on all of our communications. I argue that legalising this is not only unethical, but operationally impossible.

I am sure you can already spot the problem — if something is easy enough for one person to decipher, then it is easy enough for many others. You cannot have one and not the other, since our government employees are not magically cleverer than their US, Chinese, or Russian counterparts, or the many cyber-criminals that prowl the internet. Broken security renders us vulnerable to anyone with the expertise, not just some government agencies. Mathematical laws care little for the laws of any country.

A commonly proposed solution is for the government to have some kind of “backdoor,” such as a master key. This is difficult to do, both technically and operationally. Given that we have substantial problems implementing and deploying our current (comparatively simple) systems, shifting to such a complicated new technology would inevitably lead to more security holes.

Even if one government has a master key for a certain set of encryption systems, we still have problems. What if the master key gets stolen? We are artificially introducing a critical weakness — such a key would certainly be a prime target for any adversary, and having the key stolen is not a negligible possibility. Over the past few years, hackers have been able to steal everything from the blueprints of the F-35 fighter jet, to financial data from credit rating agencies, to healthcare data from hospitals. Trusting governments with master keys when they haven’t been able to safeguard their own military technology seems like a terrible idea.

Further, if a criminal knows that the government has a master key to software #420, she’s not going to use it. She’ll find a system with no master key (these, of course, already exist). So, the people suffering from weak encryption are mostly going to be law-abiding citizens, who will now be more vulnerable to hackers.

The global nature of the internet adds yet another layer to this. Other governments are not going to sit around and use compromised (from their point of view) communication systems – they’ll build their own software, probably with their own master keys, and stop trusting software made by residents of other countries, essentially creating import control on software. How would multinational companies secure their data? Would they be required to provide keys to every government in the world, or, perhaps a branch of the UN? The creation of a global body to govern these master keys presents a herculean challenge. Further, nothing prevents the governments from adding their own backdoors to subvert that body as well.

Practically every expert in the field believes that subverting cryptosystems (and the bulk surveillance that inevitably accompanies it) is foolish, immoral, and dangerous.

This is why companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are supporting stronger encryption. Some people who don’t really understand how encryption works have come up with many good reasons for exceptional access backdoors and opined that regulators and legislators must find a way to provide some privacy while allowing law enforcement access. This won’t work. Yes, there are many good reasons for having backdoors (roll-down windows on airplanes might have many advantages), but the numerous fatal problems that they create should have obviated this discussion long ago. Governments should stop trying to build backdoors and support strong, end-to-end security and privacy.

Debayan Gupta is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Ashoka University, where he teaches a course on security and privacy as well as an introductory programming class. He is also a visiting professor and research affiliate at MIT and MIT-Sloan.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Uncategorized

Targeted ads: Is there an ethical, economically-viable alternative?

By Samyukta Prabhu

Online platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been widely discussed for reasons ranging from increased user data collection to rising misinformation and election manipulation. At the same time, rising internet penetration globally has improved access to information and opportunities like never before. While assessing the current state of the internet, therefore, there is an urgent need to address its limitations, while ensuring that its strengths are not curtailed.

One way to do so is to address the common thread that ties together the above-mentioned pitfalls of online platforms – targeted advertising. However, the contention surrounding targeted advertising is that it is the primary business model of such platforms, thus being viewed as a necessary evil.

To better understand the nuances of this issue, it is helpful to explore how the business model of targeted ads works. This can help us assess the ramifications of potential regulations to the model – both economically as well as ethically. 

As explained in a report by the United States’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the basic model of targeted advertising involves three players – consumers, websites and firms. Websites provide consumers with ‘free’ online services (news articles, search features) into which targeted ads are embedded. Firms pay the websites (through ad networks) for publishing their ads, and specify the attributes of their target audience. To target these ads, websites use consumers’ personal data (browsing habits, purchase history, demographic data, behavioural patterns) and provide analysed metrics to firms; this is used to improve the precision of future targeted ads. Firms are incentivised to improve targeting of their ads since they earn money when users buy the advertised products. This model improves over time, with increased user engagement, since the algorithms running the websites analyse collected data contemporaneously to optimise users’ news feeds. It thus follows that lax data privacy laws and user behavioural manipulation (to increase user engagement) greatly supplement the business model of targeted ads. Phenomena such as engaging with and spreading controversial content, as well as rewarding the highest paying ad firm with millions of users’ attention, are then some of the obvious consequences of such a business model.

Over recent years, a few governments and regulatory bodies have taken select measures to address some concerns stemming from the targeted ad model. However, there often seem to be gaps in these regulations that are easily exploitable. For instance, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a data protection and privacy law for the EU region, prohibits processing personal data of users without their consent, unless explicitly permitted by the law. However, loopholes in Member States’ laws, such as the Spanish law, for instance, allows political parties to obtain and analyse user data from publicly available sources. In 2016, a ProPublica report found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude people from viewing housing ads, based on factors such as race. Facebook’s response to remedy the situation was to limit targeting categories for advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities, and barring advertisers from using metrics such as zip codes (proxy for race) as targeting filters. However, this is a temporary fix for a larger structural problem as there exist multiple proxies for race and gender that can be used for targeting. We thus see that despite efforts to target specific concerns (such as data processing, or algorithmic accountability) of online platforms, there exist legal loopholes that allow tech firms to override these regulations. Moreover, with rising billion-dollar revenues and tech innovations that far outpace legal reforms, there is increasing incentive for Big Tech firms to exploit targeted ad systems and maximise profits before the law finally catches up. 

As we can see, niche regulations to the targeted ad system are thus unlikely to adequately address the rising concerns of online platforms. That leads us to a seemingly radical alternative: abandoning the targeted ad system altogether, and exploring other models of online advertising. Such models would neutralise incentives for firms to collect and analyse user data since revenues would no longer be dependent on them. The FTC’s report suggests two such models: first, an “ad-supported business model without targeted ads” – similar to the advertising model in newspapers. Websites would use macro-level indicators to target broad audiences, but would not collect user data for micro-targeting or behavioural manipulation. Second, a “payment-supported business model without ads” – similar to Netflix, which charges the user with a subscription fee. Some platforms (such as Spotify) currently work on a mixture of the two models – free to use with generic ads, or subscription-based without ads. The potential economic shortcomings for such a model include “increased search cost” for firms to find potential buyers of their product, and “decreased match quality” for consumers who might see unwanted generic ads. However, this model has been successful for several music streaming and OTT platforms (including Spotify, Netflix) and ensures useful, customised services without the associated perils of targeted advertising. 

There exist a few other measures that continue to work within the purview of the targeted ad system, but use established regulatory frameworks to skew incentives of data collection and processing. One such measure that gained traction since Lina Khan’s seminal essay in 2017, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, is for anti-monopoly regulations as well as public utility regulations to be applied to Big Tech firms. Since these platforms effectively capture the majority of the market share for their respective products, they could be subject to anti-monopoly regulations including breaking up of the firm and separation of subsequent divisions, to prevent data collection and processing across platforms (for instance, separating Facebook from its acquired platforms Instagram and WhatsApp.) A more direct measure to limit data collection is to subject tech firms to data taxes. Another measure, that of public utility regulations, has been in play throughout history to limit the harms of private control over shared public infrastructure, including electricity and water. They stipulate “fair treatment, common carriage, and non-discrimination as well as limits on extractive pricing and constraints on utility business models.” Since the internet (and its ‘synonymous’ platforms like Google and Facebook) is an essential resource in the 21st century, being a principal source of information for the public, it can be argued that it is a public utility, thus requiring it to be subject to the appropriate regulations. With the current state of the internet requiring user surveillance and behavioural manipulation, it easily violates the fundamental public utility regulation of “fair treatment”. Making a case for these online platforms to be public utilities ensures that they do not exploit the technological shortcomings of the law, and ensures fairer access for its users. 

In today’s world, where the internet is intertwined with most parts of one’s life, including politics, entertainment, education and work, it is of utmost importance that its online platforms be recognised as a public resource for all, rather than a quid pro quo for surveillance and behavioural manipulation. An essential part of achieving this recognition is to adequately address the harms of the targeted ad system, in an ethical and economically efficient manner.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).