Digital era: Balancing good and bad
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - August 1, 2019 - 12:00am

How scarier can life on the internet be when a single Google search for how much a ticket to Disneyland in Hong Kong costs, for example, will result in a barrage of advertisements on the same topic in various other digital sites like Facebook or even your favorite news sites.

Such is the reality of being a citizen of a developing country like the Philippines where there are inadequate laws that cannot protect technology companies like Google and Facebook from mining personal data from its users, and using it to support their revenue generation activities.

As it turns out, using Google and Facebook is not “free.” Using their platforms enables them to compile a comprehensive profile of your preferences and activities, something that is profoundly useful to their advertisers.

Technological advancement has allowed internet companies to meticulously track their users’ profiles, and while this can help recommend sites where you can buy bargain tickets, as in the case of a Disney HK search, how your mined personal data is used sends chills down my spine.

No wonder the European Union passed one of the most stringent laws to date that protect data privacy of its people. And because Europe is one of internet firms’ biggest ad revenue sources, the EU is able to sort of enforce the conditions on how these companies use, transfer, and process data.

Protecting privacy

Unfortunately, the Philippines is a developing market, and with earnings that these internet companies earn from advertising only a single-digit fraction compared to earnings from more advanced economies like in the EU and Americas, it’s hard to bargain for privacy rights.

In the EU, which adopted a tough General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, technology firms can absorb the added cost of complying with the tougher measures that ensure individual privacy is protected.

In the US, home to Google and Facebook, legislative initiatives both at the local and national levels towards the lukewarm responses of the two companies to protecting privacy is starting up, although at a more lackadaisical manner.

Pressure comes not just from the disclosures about how Cambridge Analytica had misused 87 million American Facebook users during the last US elections, but also a growing number of disinformation campaigns in many parts of the world leading to the death and displacement of many people.

More recently, Facebook has noticeably been diligent in cleaning up fake accounts and moderating content that carry misinformation or use the platform to incite violence or unethical behavior. And together with Google, both have started to adopt do-good programs.

Free WiFi

In the Philippines, one of the initiatives adopted is the Google Station, a free and open WiFi hotspot service that promises “safe and protected” data transmission. Introduced in February this year to 50 locations throughout the archipelago, it has been widened to more than 400 locations now.

Located in selected public places like the train stations, airports, bus terminals, colleges and universities, markets, malls, and government offices where people amass, anyone can log in to Google Station and use the free service for 30 minutes before being asked to log in again.

Just like in many other countries where Google Station has been introduced, Google partners with local companies, like Smart Communications for the hardware facility in the Philippines.

Google says that during the first five months of its offering, it had chalked an average of one million active users in a month, each going online for an average of 22 minutes per session many times a day.

Google Station was first introduced in India in 2016, and since has been made available in Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, Nigeria, Brazil, Vietnam, and the Philippines – all in partnership with local companies.

Next billion users

Google Station is often mentioned in conjunction with the Next Billion Users initiative, a front that Google dominates with Facebook, although other tech companies share the phrase when discussing expansion plans in new consumer markets.

For Google and Facebook, with its market growth in developed countries almost at a plateau, the new frontier would be in developing economies that account for about four billion people who still do not have internet access. Thus, Google Station does not exactly entirely reek of altruism.

We can be thankful that Google is helping more people access the internet’s almost limitless wealth of information, but we should also be wary that this newfound “freedom” for people who are less informed may also lead to a violation of their privacy.

Admittedly, the 2012 Data Privacy Act of the Philippines and its implementing rules and regulations, even if the law had been modeled after the EU’s data privacy regulations, has its limitations and challenges.

Filipino ‘privacy’

The National Privacy Commission, established in 2016 to administer and implement the law’s provisions, admits that there is no Filipino term equivalent to privacy. This, and being a young governing agency, adds to uncertainties pervading today’s relationship between regulator and companies that handle private data.

Data privacy regulations are evolving, even for developed countries, and the Philippines is no exception. Congress has introduced in the past bills that would regulate social media. Past breaches in the handling of private data, especially by government agencies, have not been suitably acted on.

For now, “leakages” in personal data brought to the courts or the NPC are more of transgressions resulting in the victims’ loss of face and dignity. How technology companies like Facebook and Google mine personal data for commercial purposes is not even Filipinos’ priority concern.

Surely, the time will come for the law’s refinements. Until then, we’re just too thankful for Google for putting up stations that offer free WiFi.

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