Much Ado About Web Privacy

Today is the day Google implements its new privacy policy. I’ve been reading a lot about this complex issue, and, as far as I can see, it boils down to the fact that now Google will share your data across its many platforms. So if, for example, you do Google searches on particular subjects, Google will now let its advertisers in a different Google unit – say, YouTube – know what search topics you’re interested in and these advertisers can tweak their ads in YouTube based on your known preferences.

This change, which Google is billing as both a benefit to Google users and an effort at transparency, has brought much weeping and moaning on the Web. Many in the Twitterverse are looking for alternatives to G-mail.  In a front-page story this week the Washington Post tells of one Patience O’Connor, a 65-year-old city planner, who says, “she’s overwhelmed by the thought of starting over with a new e-mail provider, transferring her contacts and combing through thousands of messages to retrieve family pictures and legal documents.”

“This is a really hairy choice for me,” Patience told the Post. “I’m just hoping Google changes its mind.”

Google logo plus motto "Don't be evil."

Google and its famous motto.

Privacy, it seems, is one of those talismanic concepts that everybody wants to enjoy to the max just as we all want to enjoy our natural-born right to social media. And the Google move roughly coincides with the Obama Administration’s issuing a set of voluntary privacy guidelines for companies in cyberspace.

I confess I’m baffled by the kerfluffle over privacy on the Internet. For months now I’ve been trying to understand what the big deal is. I’ve been reading every think piece I run across; I’ve spent time on the site of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the leading guardian of the rights of individual users on the Web; I’ve become familiar with terms like the European Union’s“opt-out” requirement and the Obama “Do Not Track” button; and I’ve specifically asked new-media-savvy friends a fundamental question: how will Google’s new policy affect me in a negative way? Why should I be concerned?

The end result: only vague answers. The thinking of the alarmists seems to be that privacy is good and the idea of Web companies keeping data on you is inherently shady and conglomerating this info to create a portrait of you online is dangerously 1984-ish. There is much fear of the slippery slope – what companies might possibly do with your data if they collect it.  They could sell your medical records to insurance companies. Reveal your Netflix rentals of unrated Swedish DVDs. Catalog your Google searches for sources of medicinal marijuana. (These latter two threats would be most problematic for those considering a future run for president.)

The more I hear of these concerns, the more I keep thinking of a couple of bits of ancient wisdom, to wit:

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

“Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Image of Twitter bluebird and goose that laid golden egg.

Don't forget Aesop's fable.

Why do you think Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google’s many services are free? The value added you offer these companies IS your data – that is, your interests, your Likes, your preferences, your passions. This is the business model that powers all the glories of the Web. You allow them to collect lots of information about the unique person that you are and they make money by using that data to target you through ads that appear in the margins.

This model of advertising has a great advantage over the old scattershot ad model used for decades in daily newspapers and television. The companies paying for the ads these days get potential customers who have shown an interest in what they’re peddling and you get ads targeted to what you care about. It’s what some might call a virtuous circle. I worry about what will happen if there’s a mass movement of people clicking those Do Not Track buttons. No cookies might mean no Facebook some day – or at least no Facebook without a subscription fee.

Many of the privacy-handwringers remind me of Moliere’s famous Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a fellow who is surprised to discover that he has been speaking “prose” all his life without knowing it. Yes, Virginia, they have been collecting your data and using it ever since you pushed the button that says you agreed to their terms of service.

For those unhappy with this data-to-play model, let me ask you another fundamental question:  how much a month are you willing to pay for Google, Facebook, Twitter?

Image of book cover for Moliere's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Likely to be shocked by Google's privacy policy.

I grew up watching “free” network TV with commercials, reading newspapers and magazines with ads in the margins, and long ago developed the ability to ignore ads. That makes me a free rider in cyberspace. Curious, and for sake of this post since I hadn’t been paying attention, I decided to see what ads were reaching me in my favorite forms of social media. Here’s the result:

On Facebook: two ads – one for a PBS Online Film Festival and another for something called the Save the American Dream Project, a group lobbying to save the mortgage interest deduction in Maryland.

In G-mail: “Professional Art Careers – ailearnmore .com –The Art Institutes Schools Open Houses is the First Step. Get Info!”

In Twitter: there’s this:

Promoted by OPEN Forum

Amex Cardmembers/merchants can be first to try #ForSmallBiz ads from Twitter! First eligible 10K get $100 in free ads. ow.ly/98NbN

These ads seem harmless, ignorable, and a mighty small price to pay for access to their streams of useful information and amusement. For the benefits of G-mail and social media, I’m quite willing to make the trade-off. And way back I adopted my personal online privacy policy: if I don’t want to see it on the front page of the New York Times, I don’t put it online.

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