The piracy of online privacy

Paul Smalera about online privacy

Online privacy doesn’t exist. It was lost years ago. And not only was it taken, we’ve all already gotten used to it. Loss of privacy is a fundamental tradeoff at the very core of social networking. Our privacy has been taken in service of the social tools we so crave and suddenly cannot live without. If not for the piracy of privacy, Facebook wouldn’t exist. Nor would Twitter. Nor even would Gmail, Foursquare, Groupon, Zynga, etc.

And yet people keep fretting about losing what’s already gone. This week, like most others of the past decade, has brought fresh new outrages for privacy advocates. Google, which a few weeks ago changed its privacy policy to allow the company to share your personal data across as many as 60 of its products, was again castigated this week for the changes. Except this time, the shouts came in the form of a lawsuit. The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the FTC to compel it to block Google’s changes, saying they violated a privacy agreement Google signed less than a year ago.


Elsewhere, social photography app Path was caught storing users’ entire iPhone address books on their servers and have issued a red-faced apology. (The lesser-known app Hipster committed the same sin and also offered a mea culpa.) And Facebook’s IPO has brought fresh concerns that Mark Zuckerberg will find creative new ways to leverage user data into ever more desirable revenue-generating products.


This is the way we’re private now. It’s ludicrous for anyone who loves the Internet to expect otherwise. How else are these services supposed to exist - let alone make any money? Theft or misuse of private user data is a crime, certainly. But no social web app - not one - can work without intense analytics performed on the huge data sets that users provide to them voluntarily (you did read the terms of service agreement…right?).


And the issue compounds when people connect one site to another. By linking their Twitter to their Facebook to their Google+ to their Foursquare to their Zynga to their Instagram to their iOS, users are consolidating their lives, and in the process making them more attractive to marketers. While Facebook, Twitter and other services have made attempts to warn users about hitting the “connect” button, many of us hit that button with reckless abandon, without a thought of who’s slavering on the other side.


 (c) michperu FlickrThe reason social media and digital information companies want that data is because of what we refuse to give them: money. No one wants to pay for the privilege of chatting with their friends or using a coupon, and to this day, no one has to: Go ahead, ring their doorbell or pick up the free coupon book from your front stoop. But if you want to chat using Facebook or Gmail, or you want to buy a groupon for an 80 percent-off Botox service, you will have to tell those companies who you are. And those companies will use that information to tailor their offerings to you, increasing your value as a user and a customer. They will slice their data sets into a million different pieces and show those pieces to people - advertisers - who will pay them money for the privilege of using their service. They’ll use it to get to you.


This is an update on an old media model. Magazines and newspapers for decades could only guess at the readership of their product and the demographic of their customers. But now social and new media demand to - and can - know exactly who you are before they agree to let you use their free services. Even email newsletter services like the increasingly hot Thrillist – which might innocuously start you on their service by asking only for your simple email address - deploy click trackers, pixel trackers and other online data-gathering techniques to start to put together a picture of you as a user, both individually and in aggregate. A deceased magazine like Spy could only dream of that kind of intel.


Without such strategies, social web companies like these couldn’t exist. Every user has a choice when it comes to privacy, sure. But the second people sign up for Gmail, Facebook, Mint or Gilt Group, they have reaffirmed their willingness to be a mouse that the cats will chase. And these cats need mice. Otherwise they will starve. So they do their best to hide their intentions. Indeed, as a longtime and well-known advocate for the transformative power of technology recently told me, true believers like Mark Zuckerberg actively stake out radical positions on privacy, then talk about them as if they were natural or normal. It’s not too much different from the political process, where the best way to effect a shift in society is to present it as if it were a fait accompli and then expend energy actually moving the levers of power toward the shift rather than wasting time arguing with people about the implications.


That’s what the last five years have been about. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, wanted a collection of all our Facebook actions called an Open Graph to be part of our lives. Now, lo and behold, it is. Today, we straddle two extremes - the offline and the online. Each comes with its own expectations and realities of what privacy is. Offline, your thoughts and actions are your own. Online, sharing one thing leads to a spiral effect where you are soon sharing everything. Offline gives us privacy, that near-mystical quality of ownership that we covet. Online gives us the extreme power of social tools, allowing us to glide around the formerly linear data of our existence. Want your private Rolodex? Fine. Want your location-aware, instant-coupon, friend-tagging iPhone app? That’s fine too. But on the Internet, you don’t get to have both. There is no longer any middle ground. As in politics, the Internet has become a place for extremists.


by Paul Smalera

Paul Smalera is Deputy Opinion Editor of Reuters. He was previously Senior Editor leading technology coverage at, and Staff Writer at Condé Nast Portfolio. His writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post and Slate's The Big Money.

Sat, 10.03.2012 0

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