Some online services seem too good to be true. They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but Google, Facebook, and the rest of the gang sure seem to be feeding a lot of people. And at this point, I think that a general sense of awareness is growing about “online privacy concerns”, but few people are know exactly what that means at this point. That is, the services that we get for free seem worth the trade-off for whatever it is we’re giving up by using them. Right?
We get to use Google for free to gain access to mind-boggling amounts of information and get free email and software. We get to keep up with our friends on Facebook and share our pictures and comments instantly and universally. We have Twitter, WordPress, Etsy, Kickstarter, MeetUp, Pandora, and countless other free services, but what price do we pay to use these services? Is there any price beyond having to overlook ads on the sidebar?
The fact that most of these companies make their money by advertising to us is nothing new. After all, television and radio have introduced us all to the idea of receiving free content in exchange for sitting through advertisements, so it makes intuitive sense to be advertised to as we browse the net and update our Facebook pages. Sure, there are differences online as a result of the interactivity of the platform. It is well known by now that Gmail is scanning your emails for key words to use to select the ads it shows you, and Facebook can use your status info to do the same. But these are computer programs and algorithms doing the scanning and not people, so by and large most people don’t feel that their “privacy” is invaded as such. And as an added benefit (if you see it this way), the ads are generally tailored to subjects the user is actually interested in, instead of the annoying free-for-all of widely aimed ads on television that the user may have no interest in.
So does that make it a win-win-win? At least on the surface level, it sure seems to be. The online service gets to make money and provide a great service, the user gets a great free service and ads for products that may be useful, and the advertisers get to spend their advertising dollars targeting the ideal audience.
The concern for most people begins when all of that personal information culminates to allow advertisers, or others, to make inferences about information that we weren’t prepared to make public. For example, Chris Conley from the ACLU spoke at Fordham during the Fall 2010 semester and talked about a program two students had written called the “Gay-dar” that could browse Facebook pages and predict sexual orientations with startling accuracy, whether the user posted that information or not. And marketing companies are definitely learning how to make these inferences. For example, your answer to which lettuce you prefer (arugula, iceberg, or romaine) probably tells a savvy advertiser what clothing brands you buy. It may sound far-fetched, but it’s not. The more information is out there, the easier it is to find and exploit these correlations. And a LOT of information is out there.
But do we care? Does it matter? Is there any possible way to avoid any of this, or is it the natural course of progression taking place, and it is just a matter of learning to adjust to the new normal? Most of us are learning not to put compromising photos on Facebook or Tweet about hating our bosses, and companies like ReputationDefender.com have made a business model of helping us keep a squeaky clean online image. Is that enough to keep that element of privacy concern under control?
I sure don’t know. But the aim of this blog will be to begin exploring all of this and hopefully come to some conclusions.