If someone is going to profit off consumers’ Facebook data, it might as well be the consumer, right? That was Oli Frost’s thinking, which is why the 26-year-old Londoner put his entire Facebook data history up for auction on eBay last weekend. As some of America’s most valuable companies, internet giants like Google and Facebook make their revenue by selling advertisements, which are targeted using extensive data that has been collected about their users over the years.
Facebook’s recent data scandal with Cambridge Analytica reminded us all that, if you’re not paying for the product, it means you are the product. Frost, however, wasn’t going to stand for that. If, indeed, the digital age had turned him into a commodity, then he wanted some doggone compensation for it — especially if the companies profiting off his data couldn’t even keep it safe.
The bidding started at a modest 99 cents. On the auction lot were Frost’s likes, posts, and “inane comments” dating back to 2008, when he was 16 years old — photos of an embarrassing old haircut, his political preferences and voting history, his boss’ name, and addresses of family members and friends.
By Tuesday (May 29), the listing had attracted 43 bidders and the bidding was climbing toward $400. Frost had no idea whether that was a good price for 10 years’ worth of his personal data. Unfortunately, he’ll never know what the world truly thought his information was worth, since eBay removed the listing sometime on Wednesday.
For Frost, though, the auction was less about making money — he told Vice’s Motherboard that he planned to donate any money he raised to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to help with its crusade for digital rights and internet privacy. Instead, the serial internet stunt artist — who previously created a mobile app called Lifefaker, which makes the user’s life look perfect on social media, as well as a crowdfunding platform called Flopstarter, where the creatively deranged can raise money to fund their terrible ideas — was more interested in making a point about the current state of data privacy.
Like any good satire, Frost’s most recent oeuvre challenges consumers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they’re really OK with the state of things. Most people would never take to the internet’s largest auction marketplace to pawn off their personal data — so, posits Frost, why are they letting companies like Facebook and Google do basically the same thing for free?