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What Privacy Advocates DO Get About Data Tracking on the Web

Published on
21 Mar 2012
Written by
Alexander Furnas

This post is a clarification of some recent work I have done, which I think has been taken in slightly a different manner than I intended it. The clarification is substantive.

I wrote a piece recently for The Atlantic entitled, “It’s Not All About You: What Privacy Advocates Don’t Get About Data Tracking on the Web.” The thesis of this piece was, essentially, the power that massive user and behavioral data gives private corporation (and the asymmetry between them and everyone else) is more important ramification of this new ecology than any individual level breech of personal information. Creepily targeted ads aren’t really the downside, insane levels of influence and control are.

I think you get the gist of the article from the opening paragraphs (I am learning about this journalistic dont-bury-the-lead structure thing):

Jonathan Zittrain noted last summer, “If what you are getting online is for free, you are not the customer, you are the product.” This is just a fact: The Internet of free platforms, free services and free content is wholly subsidized by targeted advertising, the efficacy (and thus profitability) of which relies on collecting and mining user data. We experience this commodification of our attention everyday in virtually everything we do online, whether it’s searching, checking email, using Facebook or reading The Atlantic Technology section on this site. That is to say, right now you are a product.

Most of us, myself included, have not come to terms with what it means to “be the product.” In searching for a framework to make sense of this new dynamic, often we rely on well established pre-digital notions of privacy. The privacy discourse frames the issue in an ego-centric manner, as a bargain between consumers and companies: the company will know x, y and z about me and in exchange I get free email, good recommendations, and a plethora of convenient services. But the bargain that we are making is a collective one, and the costs will be felt at a societal scale. When we think in terms of power, it is clear we are getting a raw deal: we grant private entities — with no interest in the public good and no public accountability — greater powers of persuasion than anyone has ever had before and in exchange we get free email.

But I am writing this post because I feel compelled (by some comments from people I respect on twitter, solon and Harley Geiger) to clarify a thing or two about my position. First a caveat or two: 1) I greatly respect the editorial staff at The Atlantic; 2) I understand the click-driving nature of titling pieces.

I think my piece was mis-titled. Generally, free-lancers don’t title their own pieces – the editors do that based on their own set of criteria and the editorial goals and standards of the publication.

I wrote a piece about reframing privacy/data tracking debates in terms of power. I think the power dimension is under discussed in public fora, and is not the first thing average internet users think about when they worry about people using their personal data. As I said, “the bargain that we are making is a collective one, and the costs will be felt at a societal scale.” I think this societal level concern is a bigger deal than the personal privacy (or at least as important) and should be reflected as such in the public discourse.

The title of the piece (again, not my doing) would indicate that I think that privacy advocates don’t understand the power aspect of data. But of course they do. Anyone who spends any time thinking and working on these issues knows how powerful this data can be, and thoughtful people (if so motivated, as the great folks working in this field are) will draw out the logical societal scale implications of that power. So let me repeat. I DO NOT think that privacy advocates don’t get that big data is about power as much as privacy.

I think when privacy advocates make their case to everyone else – the non wonk, non compsci, non info sci etc. set – they frame the issue in terms of individual level considerations more than in terms of these larger scale imbalances that are created. I think this is a strategic mistake. Not that the individual level stuff isn’t a good sell, but I think there is value at coming at the issue from both angles. It illustrates that this new phenomenon is bad on a variety of levels at different scales and has more significant implications that strike at the root of our individual autonomy ethos. The power discourse is a useful counter argument to those who say that the data-for-free-services deal is a fair trade.

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