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Privacy, Profit, and Innovation

Give us your cookies, your browser history, your torrid search queries, yearning to breathe free. (Sorry, Emma.)

That’s the deepest desire of online marketers, and it is thanks to them that we have so much content and so many applications available to us free, online, every day. Our data is valuable, but not in itself and not by itself, which is why (a) we give it away so easily and (b) why organizations are trying to collect as much data from as many people as they can.

Of course, all this data is of interest not only to people who want to sell us magazine subscriptions, encourage us to acquire an MBA, or teach us the ONE ANCIENT RULE to get to a flatter tummy. Political hacks of all stripes drool at the prospect of vast data banks, and researchers (both benign and not-so-benign) are even now sharpening their analytical knives and dreaming ways to slice and dice the data. Their conclusions could reveal deep, and potentially profitable, insights into human behavior.

But this is America, and when someone’s going to make a name or a profit based on our participation, it’s reasonable to ask: what’s in it for us? To date, the answer has been: Free Facebook. Free Twitter. Free Washington Post, New York Times, Detroit Free Press, CNN, and Fox. Free internet radio and TV. Free blogs, email, and applications of all kinds.

Now you don’t have to have read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress to know that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (though you should pick up a copy; it’s a good beach book). So we HAVE been paying for our free Facebook by giving them ever more detailed pictures of who we are, what we buy, what we read, what movies we like, where we live, whether we’re married, and on and on and on. And for the most part–this is critical–we’ve scarcely been aware that we’re giving anything away, let alone who uses it, or how valuable it really is.

Concurring Opinions has a good rundown of the particulars in a recent bill that attempts to regulate how companies collect Web surfers’ data; what information is covered, whether people opt into or out of specific provisions.

I’m hoping this recent bill spurs a broader debate about the value of our data and the price of innovation. Just looking at two companies underscores the value of open data. I’m thinking of Google and Facebook. People who clamor for ironclad privacy online threaten the development of companies like Google and Facebook which required permissive rules to offer advertisers an attractive platform, and thus offer consumers a valuable service.

Have we reached a tipping point? Is it time for us to demand more control over our data–even if that control extends only to receiving more direct benefit from its inclusion in various and perhaps multiple databases? I think it’s high time we have that debate

Bonus: The New York Times recently reviewed the company/utility Bynamite. Their service lets you see how advertisers see you. Below is a screen shot of yours truly. Imagine if we could decide which sites could use this information? Which political organizations? Which government agencies, news outlets, book stores, churches, social networks? Right now, the best we can do is know how we’re seen, and to some extent, who’s profiting from our information. Since we can’t have real privacy (and probably wouldn’t want it anyway), let’s at least have some control.

Let’s start asking what’s in it for us.

Below: Gadi Ben-Yehuda as revealed by search queries and shopping habits (click to enlarge).

Gadi Ben-Yehuda as seen by advertisers

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Andrew Krzmarzick

So I was about to use Bynamite, but realized it was a download that would monitor all of my web-based data…which felt even more obtrusive since it was so overt!

Giving up privacy to learn about our lack of privacy.

Oh, the irony!

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Andy: it’s privacy you don’t have anyway!

Bynamite is only giving you access to what other people are already learning about you. That’s the whole point of my statement: “Right now, the best we can do is know how we’re seen, and to some extent, who’s profiting from our information. Since we can’t have real privacy (and probably wouldn’t want it anyway), let’s at least have some control.”


Andrew Krzmarzick

Amen, Amen and again I say Amen. 🙂

And yet there’s something illustrative about my squeamishness when the fact that I’m being monitored becomes obvious.

So should part of the legislation dictate that consumers are made painfully aware that they are selling their souls to the marketing devils?

P.S. I shared your post with our “Federal Privacy” Group to spur more conversation.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks for sharing the post, Andy.

I won’t speak for what should be legislated, but I am ~definitely~ pleased that companies like Bynamite exist and that we have ways to see what information is being gathered on us. The first step in correcting a problem, after all, is knowing that you have one.

That said, we do need to ask “do we have a real problem here”? It’s like learning that we’re surrounded by, covered in, and throughly infested with bacteria. Some of it is bad, but some of it (like good ol’ Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria) help us digest our food and actually prevent harmful bacteria from setting up camp in our food.

Of course, yogurt containers say things like “contains active cultures” and not “now with 100% more bacteria!” So the drive toward ignorance is not relegated to our digital lives. 🙂