Many people around town are talking about Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma.” It has turned out to be an eye-opening account for many as to the problems and pitfalls of the businesses that make money from the data gathered in social media.  

While the issues discussed in this film are not new to those of us with long histories working in digital fields, this movie drives home how important it is that anyone who uses digital spaces take the time and effort to continue to educate themselves about how digital spaces, and the underlying businesses, work.  

One step all of us can take toward teaching ourselves how businesses make money from the use of their digital spaces is to look for tools that help explain how technology works. One example of an informative tool is provided by the non-profit news organization “The Markup.” The tool is called “Blacklight” and is a simple webpage that lets you type in any website address. The tool examines the code behind that website and returns an easy-to-understand report explaining the tracking technologies that business is using, and who is getting the data from that tracking information.  

More steps you can take to understand how much and what kind of information is stored about you in digital spaces include downloading your data archive from Google and looking carefully at privacy settings in Facebook. However, if you live in the United States, there is no way to delete, edit, or remove data about yourself from these company’s data. The reason? Digital companies make money by reporting what they see us do online and then sell that information to other companies who want to try to sell us other things. Advertisers and marketers depend on the reports and insights on how we spend our time and money in order to most efficiently create advertising that appeals to our particular interests.    

The bottom line is, while you can learn how to manage and control what information you share with members of the public, there currently are no laws or mandates in the United States that give individuals the right to update, change, or remove, data about themselves from private databases. Even in the European Union, where the “General Data Protection Regulation” (GDPR) began to be enforced in May of 2018, much of the regulations define how companies use personal data, where it can be stored, and gives individuals rights to see what information companies have. However, people can still only request that companies remove or change personal data about themselves in very limited situations.  

All of this information can sound pretty scary and daunting when most of us are not interested in spending our free time becoming computer data experts. However, there are many useful advantages in using digital spaces, and the resulting data, for many of our own businesses. It is pretty hard to see how society will become less digital. And that means the onus is on us to make the effort to learn about the effects of the digital world on our laws, regulations, and on our lives.