According to the latest predictions, by the end of 2023, the internet will have produced approximately 120 zettabytes of data.
If you’re used to the storage capacity of your run-of-the-mill, use-at-home laptop, you’d need around 1 billion laptops stacked on top of one another to store that much data.
It’s no surprise that the big enterprises and data brokers are sitting on a veritable gold mine of analytics.
Most of us are aware (to some extent, at least) that browsing the web inevitably leaves a trail of data, but that can seem like a very abstract concept.
What does it mean, in real terms? And, for that matter, does the average internet user need to be all that concerned by removing data from Google when it’s merely the product of late-night trawls for celebrity gossip, weekend e-shopping sprees or random Google searches for ‘restaurants near me’ or ‘the entire cast of Les Misérables’?
What We Leave Behind
Let’s start with Google – the undisputed champion of browsing.
While Google remains characteristically cagey about the exact nature of its practices and algos, we do know that Google tracks user behaviour across all of its apps, services, and devices.
So, if you have a Google phone or Chrome-based laptop, odds are they have a lot more information on you than someone who only uses the search engine – although, in both cases, they’ll have a lot.
Browsing behaviour says a lot about a person. Combine that with other insights like location, age, gender identity, and the existing profile they’ve built up on you, and the one-way level of ‘familiarity’ between Google and its users is astounding.
Between Google itself, YouTube, Google Workspace and Drive, Maps, Chrome, Images, Google Shopping, Flights, Finance, Scholar, Gmail, Books…the list goes on.
Every click, every pause to read, every search and every image you take and store within its platform, every video you watch and re-watch or ad you linger over represents another piece of the puzzle from a data perspective.
By some estimates, around 90% of the world’s data has been gathered in the last 24 months.
The rate at which we are ‘shedding’ valuable information is staggering, but it all happens behind the scenes.
Most of us know it’s happening, but the extent to which it happens can only really be appreciated by those on the other side of the screen.
Why Is It A Problem?
We know that Google and other big entities like Meta are positively raking it in when it comes to user data, but we also know that our user data is essential for personalised experiences.
If Netflix, for instance, wasn’t feeding large quantities of insights on each of its users into its algorithm, then we’d all open up the platform to a long list of random and mostly unsuitable viewing suggestions.
Users want tailored, targeted experiences because they’re far superior to generic and unhelpful experiences.
One of the biggest issues lies in privacy concerns. It’s not unheard of for big companies with huge stores of data to be raided and exploited for that data.
In fact, it’s not even rare. And, even with the most robust security defences in place, they don’t account for the moral deficiencies of those companies.
Cast your mind back to 2015, when the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal hit the headlines.
Data can also let itself down. The notion of algorithmic bias and manipulation is a hot topic right now, with many fearing that data will become more and more of an isolating, self-reinforcing bubble for internet users.
It’s not just a case of getting the wrong product or site recommendations but of discriminatory outcomes like missed job opportunities, unfair credit scoring, and healthcare disparities.
Will It End?
Potentially, but the trouble is that the biggest players naturally have the most sway.
Web3, for instance, is put forth as some sort of digital utopia – a place where the privacy of its users remains in their hands, and the data they generate is their own, rather than the property of the sites and platforms they visit.
But, when Facebook became Meta, the idea of a future web free from the vice-like grip of the world’s most powerful entities started to unravel before it had even begun.
There is still hope, of course – the very definition of Web3 and the metaverse means that it’s not here until it’s here, so to speak.
But getting the likes of Google, Meta, Snapchat and TikTok to let go will be one of the biggest challenges the internet at large has ever faced.