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Westworld’s inability to be upfront is eerily reminiscent of Facebook’s troubles

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Read those terms of services

Westworld 201 - Bernard looks ahead with a host model behind him HBO

Westworld’s second season premiere shares some interesting similarities to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

Everything is collected, and no one is aware. The harsh reality, as we’ve come to learn, is how blissfully unaware we really are about how much we give to the platforms that govern us. Facebook users have been left aghast at just how much personal info the company collects. Private numbers, email addresses, Messenger conversations; all of it collected and analyzed to help advertisers better target products at people. Every like or comment entered on Facebook wound up in a database, deconstructed by analytical tools and presented in a digestible format for advertisers looking to get the biggest bang for their buck.

It’s a core part of the platform’s existence. That’s why Facebook lists data collection for advertising reasons in its terms of service. A document that even Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged isn’t topping the New York Times’ bestsellers list.

“I don’t think that the average person likely reads that whole document,” Zuckerberg said when asked during a Congressional hearing.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Westworld season 2, episode 1.]

Facebook, and other third-party apps asking to collect our data through densely worded terms of services, assume we don’t read those documents. There’s a good chance many people wouldn’t agree to the same terms and services if they did read through.

Delos, the parent company of Westworld, the park, operates under a similar mentality.

There are a few notable differences between Delos’ current situation and Facebook’s. Westworld doesn’t run on ads; people spend an exorbitant amount of money for the chance to roam the theme park and kill/have sex with robots. Westworld doesn’t have the power to potentially influence government elections; Westworld isn’t being used by two billion people every month. Delos does, however, bury disturbing allowances the company takes with visitors’ information deep within the company’s terms of services. The goal is to make it so boring that people won’t want to read it, too busy thinking of all the robots they’ll get to sleep with once they sign.

For good reason, too. Section 7b of Westworld’s terms of service — which were published on HBO’s promotional website for the park — states that the company “controls the rights to and remains the sole owner of, in perpetuity: all skin cells, bodily fluids, secretions, excretions, hair samples, saliva, sweat, blood, and any other bodily functions not listed here,” according to Slate. Once Delos is in control of these properties, the company reserves the right to “use this property in any way, shape, or form in which the entity sees fit.”

It’s grotesque — something that Bernard can’t help but express when he first learns that Delos is collecting data from visitors. He’s disturbed and clearly upset about the discovery. He looks to Charlotte Hale, a Delos board member, for answers.

“It’s in the terms of service,” Hale responds nonchalantly.

The consequences for visitors to Westworld can be seen as far more dire than Facebook users’ data being collected and shared. Westworld’s terms of service allow Delos to harvest parts of human bodies for reasons that are never fully explained. We’re left to assume that Delos’ engineers are using human DNA to create more advanced hosts, but neither Bernard nor Charlotte ever confirm those suspicions.

Regardless, it’s a bad situation. Westworld visitors are giving up physical parts of themselves without being told. We’re giving up parts of our identity to a corporation that is manipulating how terms of service pages are delivered for their own gain. It works for both companies if their users don’t ask questions. Facebook can attract more advertisers with promises of better targeting for consumers; Delos can promise its investors and visitors more advanced artificial intelligence.

We become unknowing victims in the process.

South Park did an episode about how few of us actually read the terms of services for the products they use. Concerns over incomprehensible terms of services harming users’ privacy have been building for years, but it took Facebook’s latest problems for the issue to hit home.

It’s a situation that is being explored and criticized by law experts around the world. David Hoffman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told The Guardian in 2017 that laws are being manipulated by companies going out of their way to hide the rules that govern their product.

“There’s a real concern that consumer protection law is basically being swallowed by click-by-agree clauses,” Hoffman said.

It’s a question of morals and ethics. Although Delos and Facebook aren’t doing anything illegal, not being as upfront as possible about what users are agreeing to when using their products is shady. Delos isn’t withholding information from guests, but executives aren’t being upfront about what happens to visitors once they’re inside the park. Facebook isn’t keeping information about data collection, including how apps collect data from users, but it’s certainly difficult for people to find.

Zuckerberg is aware of the cultural problem around how companies format and share their terms of service and methods with users. There’s a greater need for transparency; something that Zuckerberg is only just getting around to addressing in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“We recently put all your privacy and security settings in one place called Privacy Shortcuts to make it easier to use,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “We’re going to put this in front of everyone over the next few weeks. We’re also going to put a tool with all the platform apps you’ve signed into in at the top of your News Feed so you can easily remove any apps you no longer use.”

Zuckerberg’s comments came after a short update on the situation, where he said the team at Facebook “will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward.”

It seems, based on his message, that even he was perturbed by how quickly Facebook lost control. It’s the same kind of shock that Bernard wore on his face when he realized how far Westworld strayed from the original concept for the park — and how much danger guests were truly in.

It’s an ominous sign of the dark times we’re in when leaders of companies we put our trust in don’t seem to understand how their own organizations work. Really, how can we be expected to diligently read through chapters-long terms of services when CEOs and executives can’t be bothered to do the same?