Online Privacy: We are Far From Ready

by JenniferCobb on 03/25/2011

“People aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them.”

Eric Schmidt, Chairman, Google

Did you know that when you visit a page with a Facebook “like” button while you are logged into Facebook, the social network is able to track your browsing history?  I have to admit, this one took me a bit by surprise.  Those “like” buttons are proliferating everywhere, as is the “log in with Facebook” option.  At this point, Facebook may know more about my browsing history than I do.

Much of current privacy policy relies on private companies to implement rules of engagement that protect us from sharing too much.  And those companies are, in turn, leaning on the concept of the educated consumer, arguing that we will make the right choices given the appropriate information.  Unfortunately, the educated consumer is more a myth than a reality.  Most of really don’t want to work that hard to leverage the tools that make life easier.  This is probably an instinct that dates back to the invention of the wheel.  (You mean going faster could be dangerous?)  And when it comes to digital tools, making the right choices is hard work.

[If you are interested in a hot off the presses guide to protecting your privacy, check out this primer from Access Now.  This was written with activists in the Middle East in mind, but it gives a good sense of how complex the issues are.]

The two biggest players on the Internet, Google and Facebook, know a lot about each of us.  Google knows what I search on, what I watch, and even who I communicate with on Twitter, Facebook and other online networks.  Facebook knows much of that, plus it knows my real name and a lot more of my personal information.  Eric Schmidt, who has publically defended the right to privacy, also rather infamously said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

At the Technonomy conference last June, Schmidt made one of those breathy, futuristic comments that many tech leaders are prone to.  “If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence we can predict where you are going to go.  Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are.  You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet?  You’ve got Facebook photos!  People will find it’s very useful to have devices that remember what you want to do, because you forgot.”

It is visions like these that get investors’ hearts beating faster.   Witness the newest innovation on the block, Color Labs, which raised $41m in pre-revenue funding, mostly from Sequoia and Bain Capital.  The photo-sharing app automatically shares your photos with anyone in your geographic vicinity, without asking permission.  Search guru John Batelle posted on his blog, “If Color is used by a statistically significant percentage of folks, nearly every location that matters on earth will soon be draped in an ever-growing tapestry of visual cloth, one that no doubt will also garner commentary, narrative structure, social graph meaning, and plasticity of interpretation. . . . What Color really augurs is the ability to understand our shared sense of place over time – and that alone is mind-bendingly powerful.”   Do we really want a “tapestry of visual cloth” draped all over the world, composed of images posted without clear permission?

Gary Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla, the open source company that brought us Firefox, claims that we will need to rely on tools built into the software to protect privacy and not government regulation.  In an interview with HuffPo, Kovacs said, “I never rely on the government to lead something, it just takes too long.  Capitalism works.”  I might have been a bit more sanguine about that argument before 2008 when a group of unregulated bankers almost took down the global financial system.

So, where is government in all of this? In December of last year, the US Commerce Department released a much-anticipated green paper with the zippy title — Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in the Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework.  The paper steered clear of regulatory mandates, proposing instead a series of “voluntary codes of conduct that promote informed consent and safeguard personal information.”  These codes would be developed with private sector actors and would not be enforceable unless companies first choose to adopt them.

So, if a company chooses to adopt the standards, who in government will do the enforcing?  This job falls largely to the Commerce Department whose current head, Gary Locke, has been tapped to be the next  Ambassador to China.  And who is rumored to replace him?  The smart money at the moment is on Eric Schmidt.    Consumer Watchdog, a consumer rights organization, sniped in an open letter to Obama “Tapping Google CEO For Commerce Secretary Is Like Appointing Madoff to Head SEC.”

The recent financial crisis is more than a good analogy.  Even very sophisticated investors were fooled by the subprime fiasco, and these were investors who were supposed to be smart enough to understand what was going on.  We can point fingers all over the place, and there is plenty of blame to spread around, but in the end the interplay between the private sector and regulation in highly innovative industries moves fast.  The ICT policy framework proposed by commerce is built on the assumption that change is constant and that resilience is a primary value.   But it also acknowledges that there are major gaps in the system, particularly around data used by online advertisers, cloud computing services, location based services, and social networks.  And those are big gaps.  The task force working on the framework also acknowledges that many consumers assume that companies they trust are actively protecting their privacy, not simply “educating” them on what they should do.  Ouch.

These are hard issues.  Regulating a fast growing sector that produces jobs in a time when we desperately need them is tough.  We are increasingly dependent on US innovation to move us back to economic health, and much of that innovation in the current economy comes from the ICT sector.  In fact, tech is growing four times faster than any other sector in the US.  But relying on consumers to police their own interests in this space is tricky at best.

It is a basic human right for each of us to define what is personal and what is public, what we want to share and with whom.  As we continue our struggle with the brave new world of online privacy, let us not devolve into Huxley’s dystopian vision of a culture drowning in irrelevance, where all information becomes trivial and where we lose our ability to choose what is knowable only to our deepest and most personal selves.

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