(image) Among many other things (we usually add 20-30 items into our book’s Evernote account each week), this past week we read about developments in brain-computer interfaces, and how connecting smart devices introduces new vulnerabilities. We also read about how policy and ethics questions need to catch up with technology that makes surveillance easier. If you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.
Sometimes when you aren’t sure what you have to say about something, you should just start talking about it. That’s how I feel about the evolving PRISM story – it’s so damn big, I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my head around it. Then again, I realize I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades – I assigned and edited a story about massive government data overreach in the first issue of Wired, for God’s sake, and we’re having our 20th anniversary party this Saturday. Shit howdy, back then I felt like I was pissing into the wind – was I just a 27-year-old conspiracy theorist?
Um, no. We were just a bit ahead of ourselves at Wired back in the day. Now, it feels like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. Just today I spoke to a senior executive at a Very Large Internet Company who complained about spending way too much time dealing with PRISM. Microsoft just posted a missive which said, in essence, “We think this sucks and we sure wish the US government would get its shit together.” I can only imagine the war rooms at Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and other major Internet companies – PRISM is putting them directly at odds with the very currency of their business: Consumer trust.
And I’m fucking thrilled about this all. Because finally, the core issue of data rights is coming to the fore of societal conversation. Here’s what I wrote about the issue back in 2005, in The Search:
Early last month I wrote a piece entitled Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat. In it I covered Microsoft’s controversial decision to incorporate a presumptive “opt out of tracking” flag in the next release of its browser, which many in the ad industry see as a major blow to the future of our business.
In the piece, I argued that Microsoft’s move may well force independent publishers (you know, like Searchblog, as well as larger sites like CNN or the New York Times) to engage in a years-overdue dialog with their readers about the value exchange between publisher, reader, and marketer. I laid out a scenario and proposed some language to kick that dialog off, but I gave short shrift to a problematic and critical framing concept. In this post, I hope to lay that concept out and offer, by way of example, a way forward. (Caveat: I am not an expert in policy or tech. I’ll probably get some things wrong, and hope readers will correct me if and when I do.)
The “concept” has to do with the idea of a first-party relationship – a difficult to define phrase that, for purposes of this post, means the direct relationship a publisher or a service has with its consumer. This matters, a lot, because in the FTC’s recently released privacy framework, “first-party marketing” has been excluded from proposed future regulation around digital privacy and the use of data. However, “third-party” marketing, the framework suggests, will be subject to regulation that could require “consumer choice.”
Look, I’m not exactly a huge fan of grimy greenbacks, but I do feel a need to point out something that most coverage of current Valley darling Square seems to miss: The “Death of Cash” also means the “death of anonymous transactions” – and no matter your view of the role of government and corporations in our life, the very idea that we might lose the ability to transact without the creation of a record merits serious discussion. Unfortunately, this otherwise worthy cover story in Fortune about Square utterly ignores the issue.
And that’s too bad. A recent book called “The End of Money” does get into some of these issues – it’s on my list to read – but in general, I’ve noticed a lack of attention to the anonymity issue in coverage of hot payment startups. In fact, in interviews I’ve read, the author of “The End of Money” makes the point that cash is pretty much a blight on our society – in that it’s the currency of criminals and a millstone around the necks of the poor.
Call it a hunch, but I sense that many of us are not entirely comfortable with a world in which every single thing we buy creates a cloud of data. I’d like to have an option to not have a record of how much I tipped, or what I bought at 1:08 am at a corner market in New York City. Despite protections of law, technology, and custom, that data will remain forever, and sometimes, we simply don’t want it to.
(image) Facebook claims the data we create inside Facebook is ours – that we own it. In fact, I confirmed this last week in an interview with Facebook VP David Fischer on stage at FM’s Signal P&G conference in Cincinnati. In the conversation, I asked Fischer if we owned our own data. He said yes.
Perhaps unfairly (I’m pretty sure Fischer is not in charge of data policy), I followed up my question with another: If we own our own data, can we therefore take it out of Facebook and give it to, say, Google, so Google can use it to personalize our search results?
Fischer pondered that question, realized its implications, and backtracked. He wasn’t sure about that, and it turns out, it’s more complicated to answer that question – as recent stories about European data requests have revealed.*
I’m still in recovery mode after the wave of Apple-defenders inundated me with privacy-related comments over this past weekend, and I promise to continue the dialog – and admit where I may be wrong – once I feel I’ve properly grokked the story. The issue of privacy as it relates to the Intenet is rather a long piece of yarn, and I’m only a small part of the way toward unraveling this particular sweater. (And yes, I know there are plenty of privacy absolutists rolling their eyes at me right now, but if you don’t want to hear my views after some real reporting and thinking on the subject, just move along….). lf you want to peruse some of the recent stories on the subject I’ve been reading, you can start with the Signal post I just finished.
Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little story about advertising and tracking, which is at the heart of much of the current tempest.
While skiing last week at my home mountain of Mammoth (the only place in California with a decent snowpack), my family and I stayed at a Westin property. It’s a relatively new place, and pretty nice for Mammoth – which is more of a “throw the kids in the station wagon and drive up” kind of resort. It’s not exactly Vail or Aspen – save for the skiing, which I dare say rivals any mountain in the US.
The Federal Trade Commission and Facebook have come to terms on consumer privacy, an issue the FTC formally raised in an eight-count complaint earlier this year. Both sides have announced the pact in their own particular way.
On Facebook’s blog, CEO Mark Zuckerberg strikes a diplomatic tone with a dash of mea culpa.
“Overall, I think we have a good history of providing transparency and control over who can see your information,” he writes. “That said, I’m the first to admit that we’ve made a bunch of mistakes. In particular, I think that a small number of high profile mistakes…have often overshadowed much of the good work we’ve done.”