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Advertising vs. Privacy

August 19, 2014

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?

Categories: data science, modeling
  1. August 19, 2014 at 7:35 am

    I can see this devolving into a two tier system whereby those who can afford to pay for a closed social networking system (as opposed to having advertisers underwrite the service) can buy privacy while those who cannot afford to pay (or are oblivious to or accepting of the fact that advertising is the quid quo pro for “free” social networking) will be profiled. Isn’t that where we are now in society in general?


    • Ethan
      August 19, 2014 at 2:34 pm

      In fact, this sort of already exists, at least for the very wealthy. Have you see Zuckerberg, Larry Page and the like share their stuff at their public social media sites? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean they don’t share private info electronically with their friends and families.

      Where the business opportunity lies, in my opinion, is for the upper middle classes (say top 15% of the population) who could afford to pay say $20 per month. That’s a 10 billion dollar/year business opportunity for the US alone. To be successful it should provide not only social media capabilities, but internet search, email, etc.

      In fact, this is one area where organized crime is already ahead of the times. There are internet sites that are only accessible through the Tor network such as those with the suffix https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.onion .


      • August 20, 2014 at 5:57 am

        Thanks for the information!


  2. August 19, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Honestly (and depressingly) I think privacy is essentially dead. The younger, rising generations show they just don’t care about it much, and by the time they’re in charge of things I suspect they’ll just laugh at those who fretted over it so much.
    Nonetheless, I remain annoyed at so-called “targeted” advertising, because it is simply so crappy! I don’t mind giving up privacy for ads that are actually useful/valuable to me in some way, but 95% of them are worthless to me, the algorithms are so primitive thus far; and I’ve been turned off to a whole slew of companies (who may be perfectly fine companies) based solely on their annoying, obtrusive ads.


  3. August 19, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Speaking of Facebook, a must see at the Onion…picture is great, need a laugh here and there too.

    “Area Facebook User Incredibly Stupid”


    I actually had a short Twitter chat with the CIO of the FCC on Sunday and he agreed on some of the proprietary models being used to “score” people needing to be open source too but I’m not holding my breath as it was just a public tweet and there needs to be more than that done. I just flat out started calling some of this “code hosing”, verbiage to make point if you will. I wrote about that too as I know you address frequently as well that someone needs to start calling “foul” on some of this as the “secret” scoring and denial of access continues.

    We’ll get scored soon on what we “can” see probably:) I keep pushing for data sellers to be licensed and keep my campaign going on licensing to get a law passed as at least that way we could know “who” they are as there are so many hiding under the carpet. The FTC by the way did find several mobile health apps/devices selling data collected to a few hundred third parties, and of course they are offered protection from some legal privacy statement that nobody can fully figure out. Privacy statements that are complex as such make it easy to throw us all the dogs of course. It sucks!


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