What Is the Real Cost of Personalised Online Services?

by | Dec 18, 2023 | Corporate power | 0 comments

Article by Elena Buti

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash


People are pawns, but this is not a game. It is time to realise what has been ignored and try to understand what was unknown about data processing. The general public disregards the enormous amount of information it provides ‘big data’ corporations, and capitalist companies whose work is based on the use of aggregated data. Not everyone might be interested in the fact that data brokers know every single item they have clicked on, but when whatever detail of a person’s life is out there, what protection does the user have?


Corporations[i] are conceptualized as the dominant economic institution that shapes citizens’ decisions and has financial and legal power to overrule society and governments. Its freedom from bonds of location ‘forces’ states to diminish regulatory regimes to attract them. In light of this Eric Schmidt[ii], Google Chairperson, in 2014, defined the EU’s regulatory projects[ii] as possible threats for ‘serious economic dangers’ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2014) for Europe.


It is not about having something to hide[iii], but about who and how they use notions about the self. The computer mediated history tells an incomparable number of actions[iv] that vary from economic transactions to billing checks, credit score history and more. The Internet has allowed the sharing of the greatest knowledge ever, reliable or not, and can be consulted every time a doubt occurs, a solution is needed, and an explanation is required. All this data is extracted, gathered, accurately analysed, sold, and then managed again. A draft of someone’s personality could be created with it, considering that even how a question has been written, utilised sources and communication style are scrutinized.  The result of this process is a new interface: pages are personalised, and shaped by the individual’s needs and previous research. It seems amazing to open an app and find settings exactly how the user wants them. Unfortunately, the truth is that the Internet is not being designed with the sole purpose of helping us, but also for creating profit.


Personalised ads and search options commonly seen as an advantage may be a limitation. The concern is that certain features are suggested, and others are hidden; humans are perfectly able to identify the right criteria[v] to conduct a search without an algorithm assisting. The latter cannot state who might explain a topic better.


Google and other firms shape your future experiences as a buyer. Inputs are used to make predictions and in Zuboff’s words ‘ultimately modification of the totality of action’ (2015, p.82). Acquiring data assets means having ‘the ownership of the means of behavioural control’ (Zuboff, 2015, p.82). So, it is one thing not caring about privacy, but completely another thing not allowing external agencies to change our behaviour. It doesn’t just entail being pawns, but passive actors in everyday life.


Zuboff writes that populations are the source of profitable data assets and the ultimate targets of the result that convene from them. Noticing that millions of inhabitants of this earth are online every day and data acquires value when collected, then the potential gain from working on a global scale is significantly high, especially considering that ‘systems are built in a way to collect data’[iv].


Due to their worldwide impact, the actions of big data corporations represent a global challenge and a social one. Although atypical, because of the absence of reciprocities of previous capitalist economies, social relationships underlie the treatment of data, one-way interactions between people and services.


If privacy matters are often ignored, the unequal ‘distribution of privacy rights’ (Zuboff, 2015, p.82) [iv] is not even kept in consideration. Users’ rights have not been eroded, they have been transferred by and to surveillance capitalists. The inequality grants them the possibility of having secrets. On the opposite hand, the public’s lack of awareness permits this kind of economic system to prosper.


Shoshana Zuboff’s research article was published in 2015, since then laws have been implemented to protect personal data privacy, such as the GDPR (2018) and CCPA (2020), respectively in the EU and California. As a result, there is an ongoing discussion about privacy laws[vi] and their efficiency in protecting consumers. Frankel’s evaluation states that both laws offer a level of data privacy to the customer, but none of them grants absolute autonomy over data. Users can control what is stored and for which purposes, but the scholar states clearly that companies have more control over data, than their primary owners. The real cost of personalised online services is less privacy.




[i] Bakan, J. (2004). Chapter 1: The Corporation’s Rise to Dominance. In The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press. (pp.5-27)

[ii] Schmidt E., (2014). ‘A chance for growth’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 April [Online]. Available at: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/eric-schmidt-about-the-good-things-google-does-a-chance-for-growth-12887909.html (Accessed: 1 November 2023)

[iii] https://youtu.be/vc7_TKN0kfw?si=8d7HnEi17eOf4TNi (Accessed: 1 November 2023)

[iv] Zuboff, S. (2015). “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization”. Journal of Information Technology. 30 (1), pp.75–89. [Online]. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1057/jit.2015.5 (Accessed: 15 October 2023)

[v] https://youtu.be/6faXjs24Tos?si=UzJkq61yLQQsprX5 (Accessed: 25 October 2023)

[vi] Frankel, J. (2021). Surveillance Capitalism and the Right to Be Forgotten: Does the General Data Protection Regulation or the California Consumer Privacy Act Better Protect Individual’s Data Privacy in a Surveillance Economy?. Master, Harvard University Division of Continuing Education. Available at:

https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/37370640/Jasmin%20Frankel%20Surveillance%20Capitalism%20and%20the%20Right%20to%20Be%20Forgotten%20Does%20the%20General%20Data%20Protection%20Regulation%20or%20the%20California%20Consumer%20Privacy%20Act%20Better%20Protect%20Individual’s%20Data%20Privacy%20in%20a%20Surveillance%20Economy.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=n (Accessed: 3 November 2023)


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