Advertising vs. Privacy
I’ve was away over the weekend (apologies to Aunt Pythia fans!) and super busy yesterday but this morning I finally had a chance to read Ethan Zuckerman’s Atlantic piece entitled The Internet’s Original Sin, which was sent to me by my friend Ernest Davis.
Here’s the thing, Zuckerman gets lots of things right in the article. Most importantly, the inherent conflict between privacy and the advertisement-based economy of the internet:
Demonstrating that you’re going to target more and better than Facebook requires moving deeper into the world of surveillance—tracking users’ mobile devices as they move through the physical world, assembling more complex user profiles by trading information between data brokers.
Once we’ve assumed that advertising is the default model to support the Internet, the next step is obvious: We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more effective.
This is well said, and important to understand.
Here’s where Zuckerman goes a little too far in my opinion:
Outrage over experimental manipulation of these profiles by social networks and dating companies has led to heated debates amongst the technologically savvy, but hasn’t shrunk the user bases of these services, as users now accept that this sort of manipulation is an integral part of the online experience.
It is a mistake to assume that “users accept this sort of manipulation” because not everyone has stopped using Facebook. Facebook is, after all, an hours-long daily habit for an enormous number of people, and it’s therefore sticky. People don’t give up addictive habits overnight. But it doesn’t mean they are feeling the same way about Facebook that they did 4 years ago. People are adjusting their opinion of the user experience as that user experience is increasingly manipulated and creepy.
An analogy should be drawn to something like smoking, where the rates have gone way down since we all found out it is bad for you. People stopped smoking even though it is really hard for most people (and impossible for some).
We should instead be thinking longer term about what people will be willing to leave Facebook for. What is the social networking model of the future? What kind of minimum privacy protections will convince people they are safe (enough)?
And, most importantly, will we even have reasonable minimum protections, or will privacy be entirely commoditized, whereby only premium pay members will be protected, while the rest of us will be thrown to the dogs?