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Posts Tagged ‘privacy’

Google’s Browser-Based Data Collection Opt-Out: Staying Ahead of Regulation

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Google is rolling out an opt-out browser add-on to allow any web user to block their data from being shared with websites using Google Analytics. This goes beyond the requisite privacy policies and disclosure on websites using Google tracking tools, and seems to get ahead of most possible forms of policy regulation on user privacy. In other words, Google has chosen the rights of users over the wishes of marketers. They have a long history of doing so. It’s not purely selfless: it’s also turned out to be the right stance to take on a wide variety of issues. Despite whatever controversies Google may have faced in recent years, overall their reputation has been along the lines of “pretty mature and respectful, for a company of this size”.

What? Google interested in privacy?

The casual observer might not associate Google with a forward-thinking approach to privacy, given recent controversies and given that you inherently give up a significant chunk of your personal privacy if you use many Google tools and services. That’s by dint of their overwhelming scale and scope in many walks of digital life; many of those worlds overlap and collide.

But for years, discussions of user data and opt-outs were virtually nonexistent in the traditional marketing world, and at some of Google’s competitors. That world has made rumblings of someday “pushing” the Googles and Yahoos of the world into a more marketer-friendly stance when it comes to sharing user data.

Google pushed back in many small ways. For example, using the Google AdWords Conversion Tracker used to require advertisers to display a prominent logo that led to more information about data collection. Not exactly the kind of thing you’d want prospective purchasers to pore through while perusing your landing page, but Google made advertisers do it anyway. (That got sort of relaxed later.)

By comparison with competitors and the mainstream thinking in direct marketing, in their core offering to advertisers, Google didn’t even budge, didn’t even dabble, in areas like demographic targeting. That’s begun to change, of course. But it took them a lot longer than many would have expected to loosen up on that front.

Again, I’m not saying that your privacy is safe in a Google-centric world. But Google should be rightly recognized for taking a strong position here and going beyond what might be forced on them. If you use a major browser (Chrome, IE, or Firefox, with Safari coming soon), you can simply set it so no website ever gets your session data to use with Google Analytics. That data loss is a major threat to marketers trying to attribute their spending efforts, or to otherwise make sense of user behavior.

Now Google knows that probably only 2% max of users will bother, so at this stage it’s the same as various security settings in the browsers that 90% of users don’t play with. But if that’s the case, then why don’t other analytics vendors come out with a similar plug-in? The answer seems clear: Google has made a point of always getting ahead of the curve on these issues, so they don’t run into a backlash. Other vendors have generally taken a more short-sighted (or simply unethical) view of users’ privacy rights and concerns.

Is a self-interested other shoe likely to drop? Possibly. Once the opt-out functionality is firmly in place, what’s to say that Google won’t move forward more aggressively with demographic and behavioral targeting? It’s quite possible that in taking care of users and regulatory concerns first, Google can more confidently offer more data to marketers. It will be interesting to watch.

And here I almost got through this whole post without saying “Facebook”.

‘Sharing is Not an Inherently Private Activity’. Really. Really??!

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Ever shared an ice cream cone with your dog? Or a lover? Or a phone conversation with your mother? Or a document with a business partner? In Facebook-speak, these aren’t “inherently private” activities. Facebook developers, its CEO, other users, and the planet at large, evidently, should be able to lap at your ice cream cone, etc. After all, you’re sharing.

I’m going slightly over the top to emphasize that Facebook just compounds its insensitivity by resorting to vague language and unscripted retorts intended to explain to the rest of us how it all works. Facebook execs in charge of the country would seemingly enact laws allowing you to share the contents of your home (etc.) with law enforcement, or just curious software developers or neighbors, for no probable cause of any felony being committed. After all, silly, isn’t that what you signed on for when you became part of their society?

Fortunately, outside of Facebook’s walled garden, we still have laws in place that allow some solace in a little activity called dissent. Even if most of the carping out here won’t make it into FB’s development pipeline, we’re pleased to be allowed (legally, at least) to say what we think.

Let’s preface that with a nod to practicality and taking care of oneself first. Defensive driving means don’t assume the driver to your right won’t sail through that red light. You really should assume that all emails you send could be seen by everyone. That doesn’t translate into “email is inherently sharing so is not private,” just that despite the best-laid plans and the inherently somewhat private architecture of email… shit happens, so be careful and practice safe emailing. Of course the same goes for Facebook.

But that being said, your web host has a fiduciary duty not to share your email with everyone, and analogously, Facebook shouldn’t be so cavalier about massive changes that throw users under the bus, cause them major distress, and (giggle, tee-hee) cause inane personal posts like “hangover horn” to be tweeted to the planet because that user didn’t understand how this week’s settings worked. (Yes, I know. Lots of people deliberately share their hangover information. That’s some people’s style. I really doubt that the same goes for the “hate my boss” and “hate my job” posts, however.)

The vague Facebook “executive retort” rhetoric is not up to the task. It reminds me a lot of the old, worn debates about “types of freedom,” mainly because many of our current attitudes towards rights (legal, constitutionally enshrined protections of basic liberties) evolved from what Friedrich von Hayek called “negative freedom”. That was the minimalist view of the role of government, that saw it as vitally important that we as free folks be protected against arbitrary authority, in contrast with (Friedrich charged) creeping socialist views that the government should be helping people access opportunities as well (so-called “positive freedom” that can have a sinister ring if it leads to meddling, overspending, and other things “free folks” don’t like).

As stilted as the concept of “negative freedom” is, it’s not a bad way of summing up how people in constitutional democracies feel about arbitrary authority or external interlopers (the government, other people, etc.) crossing a line where they violate one’s personal zone of freedom. Privacy in the modern digital era creates a massive new challenge that runs way ahead of current legal systems to keep up, but I’ve never subscribed to the view that “you don’t have privacy anymore, get over it.” Maybe that’s because I believe in a longer-lived principle that justice means, quite simply, keeping your contracts and bargains. User privacy arrangements may be fast-moving, but they’re like any other commitment. You can’t break a deal and sell people out. It’s Wrong.

Regarding these “types” of “freedom,” Yale professor Ian Shapiro helpfully came along (just before the Cold War and its silly rhetoric finally ended) and pointed out that the argument is sterile, because debates about freedom must refer to a composite sketch of real world “liberties” involving four key components: actions (what), agents (who, or to whom), ends (for what purpose), and legitimacy (under what social and legal and constitutional framework that makes one person’s freedom enforceable in a particular way).

Needless to say, the Facebook kids don’t care about any of that. Clearly underthinking the matter, they fail to recognize that concepts like privacy and/or sharing (to say nothing of “inherent”) can’t be tossed around in vague fashion if they’re to make any sense. What am I sharing, with whom, for what purpose, under what social, legal, and constitutional (or other relevant) framework? The truly scary thing is that Facebook believes the framework is Facebook. It is literally its own world. Outside that world, we have (irrelevant, to them) norms, laws, concerns, and social mores.

It’s truly scary. Honestly, they need an attitude adjustment. Or in similar words from Danny Sullivan: “they need to get their shit together.”

P.S.: Facebook, again: “sharing” is not “broadcast”. While it is not “inherently” private, privacy enters the equation just as sure as you hung that tie on your dorm room doorknob to keep your roommate away when you were in there, um, “sharing something privately”.


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