This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2018

Dear internet algorithms: Stop invading our privacy

Big Brother is watching—and it's not cool

Megan Jones@MegJonesA

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 10.14.15 AMDear internet algorithms,

I know that you’re cold, calculating, and goal-driven by nature, so I’ll get straight to the point: We need to talk about your manners—or rather, the fact that you don’t seem to have any. I know you’re made up of computer code, so it’s understandable you’d favour logic and efficiency over any degree of social decorum. But it’s time you learned some etiquette. Because, as I’m sure the more than 3.5 billion internet users worldwide would agree, you’re rude as hell.

Let’s start with your lack of boundaries. You’re like a set of overzealous sales employees, if those employees could stalk me onto the metro and yell at me about deals on MeUndies while I’m trying to mindlessly scroll through Twitter. If Rockwell was already singing, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me” back in 1984, I’d hate to know how the poor guy feels today. Because he’d be right—you’re relentless.

I made the rookie mistake of Googling “affordable Lisbon flights,” one time and suddenly I’m damned to a month of constant badgering. For all your understanding of patterned human behaviour, have you never heard of the concept of “just browsing”? A European vacation isn’t in the cards for me, even though, as you’ve so helpfully pointed out unceasingly, “PORTUGAL FLIGHTS ARE 40 PERCENT OFF, BOOK NOW.” It’s just not happening. Given that you know all about my income level, you should have realized that.

Which leads to my second point: I’ve never met anyone as nosy as you. You’re apparently aware of the kind of news I want to consume, how big my apartment is, and the frequency with which I’ve watched the music video for Ginuwine’s “Pony,” which I’d prefer not to discuss here. I know I’ve given you most of this data willingly, but where’s the reciprocity? For all you’ve learned about me, I can barely understand how you work. You’re a black box—your keepers rarely reveal anything about you. But one-sided relationships just aren’t healthy. Friendship is a two-way street, and sharing is caring, which I know you’ve heard before since both of those sayings came up when I Googled “idioms.”

Given that you clearly have the upper hand, could you be a bit more diplomatic? I don’t like the way you see me and how bluntly you’re willing to make that perception clear. Don’t get me wrong, I would, as you suggested, like to watch just about every gay film available on Netflix, but I don’t appreciate your queer-baiting—and I’d like to think my interests are a bit broader than that. And you’re correct, I probably would benefit from buying the book, “How to Develop Emotional Health,” but it feels like a low blow to remind me of that when it’s 1 a.m. and I’m just trying to eat popcorn and browse Amazon from bed in peace.

Of course, this extends beyond my own petty gripes. Don’t think we haven’t noticed that you’ve been instrumental in some pretty shady activity with serious consequences lately. Remember back in 2015, when a Carnegie Mellon University study found that ad algorithms on Google showed high-income jobs to men much more often than they did to women? Or when ProPublica discovered last year that people could use you to target others using anti-Semitic phrases on Facebook? And let’s not forget when, in 2016, Russian-linked Facebook ads targeted voters in Wisconsin and Michigan, two states that were crucial in Trump’s eventual election win? You really screwed a lot of people over with that one.

At the end of the day, algorithms, etiquette involves more than just following the rules—it’s about treating people well, and that takes kindness. So be gentle toward us humans. If you really are, as some fear, going to be instrumental in our eventual submission to robot overlords, you might as well be nice about it.

Illustration by Saman Sarheng 

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