A little over 15 years ago, privacy was declared dead by Scott McNealy. In that time, the topic of online privacy has stubbornly remained relevant, surviving not only Sergey Brin’s platitudes but also Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to declare it dead a second time. Post-Snowden, the tech industry did an abrupt about-face, deciding to finally recognize and actively defend their customers’ privacy rights.
Because, after all, it was the right thing to do (Note: sarcasm not evident unless you click this last link).
It is worth remembering that advertising wasn’t always a reliable way to make money on the Internet. Today’s targeted advertisements, though, has the potential to generate tremendous profits as long as a company is willing to parse through troves of personal data to do it.
For some, privacy is intrinsically valuable but there are others who take a more pragmatic view and ask: if sifting through my data allows companies to deliver awesome services at no cost to me, what are the practical downsides?
Well, to begin with, there’s the fact that any information that’s collected can be abused, stolen, intercepted, or forced to be turned over to the government. When AOL released 20 million web search queries to the world in 2006, it was done because someone thought it would be used for researches wanting to analyze Internet search behavior. It should come as no surprise that others found alternate uses for it. This was a single incident, nearly a decade ago by a company that was pretty much a bit player at that time. Consider the amount of data Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple have right now and imagine the privacy problems that are just one bone-headed move away.
There is also the fact that there is public interest in search results remaining neutral and not influenced by money. Google’s great contribution to Internet search was in ranking sites higher if more people linked to it. It was a democratic process and one that runs counter in spirit to Google’s other great contribution, which starts mixing in ads with search results. The end result is that what you see when you search at Google (or Bing, or Yahoo) is influenced as much by money as it is by actual relevance. This is a big reason why Wikipedia begs for donations rather than go down this rabbit hole.
Lastly, and perhaps this may not fall under the scope of “practical”, but there is the simple fact that the current web advertising model is both driving, and being driven by, the increasing commidification of people. While it may be a stretch to connect Internet advertising with social problems, it certainly doesn’t help that the tech world has approached its treatment of a basic and fundamental human right with such a Laissez-fair attitude.
If this is still a topic that doesn’t concern you, that’s ok. Stacked on the other side of the argument are an enormous number of truly useful, free services that, without revenue from targeted advertising, wouldn’t otherwise exist. It is worth remembering how truly awful free email services used to be before Gmail came along. Still, it is worth keeping in mind targeted advertising is probably not the only way for services like these to exist.
Stay tuned, as this week we move on from passwords and on to taking control of your privacy online.