Freedom isn’t Free and There’s No Business in Privacy

As I was walking up one of the streets near my house today, I passed an old Blazer with a bumper sticker that read, “Freedom isn’t Free”.  This forced me to pause a bit and think about that.  I mean, sure the word “free” appears in freedom, but the point of this bumper sticker was in support of having wars to…how do they say this again?…protect our freedoms.  Yes, I have always seen this as a dubious claim and my sarcasm here is intended.  But this sentence forced one of those word associations or semantic links in my head, and next thing I know, as has happened quite frequently lately, the thought of privacy popped in.

Earlier today, I caught a New York Times article on a startup called Bynamite.  This startup sounded really cool to me until I got to the bottom of the article, specifically:

“Like most start-ups, Bynamite faces long odds. To succeed, it must be easy to use, and users must trust it as a reliable middleman handling their data. It has no business model yet, though it could offer product recommendations, based on interests, and collect fees on resulting sales from merchants. It hasn’t ruled out accepting ads itself.”

Which begged the question of how could I trust a company who has yet to define its business model and is asking that I trust them with my information?  Worse, they may even try to position themselves as deliverers of ads and product offers by knowing more about me, by receiving explicit permission to seek out all information that ad networks and sites have about me.  But in thinking through this further I also began to realize that in fact there really is no business in helping people maintain their privacy.  There’s no market for it either.  Look at what’s happening today and you’ll see how little people actually care about their privacy no matter what they say.  Look no further than in the success of Apple’s revised Terms of Use for iTunes and the App Store, where users give up their rights to manage and determine who gets their location data.  Apple basically says that not only will they have access to it, but any thrid party developer can get this as well.  Twitter enabled location data to be part of the metadata associated with tweets, and the faithful, like Apple’s, have embraced this capability.  A more powerful example comes in the form of the flourishing ecosystems around location-based social networks and games.  While today these require explicit “check-ins”, those using these services (which are growing every day) are becoming such emphatic users that it will soon be easier for them to have the check-ins occur automatically.  This is one group of privacy diluting activities that are helping to get us used to the idea that our sensitive location information should be made public.  Good news for the generation of thieves.

We also see another set of activities taking place around media properties that offer free access to their content.  Some of these sites try to offer pay walls but these offerings are often challenged by users’ mantra of not wanting to pay for content.  So instead these same people register to the media site’s free offering in exchange for being bombarded by advertisements.  Of course many of these ads come from ad networks, all of whom get to place a “cookie” on the user’s machine to track their activities as they navigate around the Web, making it easier to better target offers to them…sort of.  Software-as-a-Service applications like email also show some disregard of any privacy consciousness because the laws around emails being private when sitting in an ISPs servers have yet to be clarified.  In other words, without any certainty around what can happen to our emails, people have jumped on the use of hosted email services. Yes, I often hear the cop out refrain of “don’t say anything in email that you would regret anyone seeing”, and yet this has never really slowed anyone down from writing something that they wouldn’t want at least one other person seeing.  It’s in the nature of our personal intercommunications.

Where individuals may not be prepared or willing to pay to keep their information truly private or at least in their control, the fact is that marketers, media companies (who have advertiser clients), governments, and investigators, are all willing to pay for your information, and frequently are willing to pay quite a bit for it.  In effect, you don’t make enough money from keeping your information a secret (or in your control) to justify paying more than a Mercedes Benz dealership who wants to know your income and that you’re looking for a new car now.  When you think about how many services online are free to end-users, you begin to realize the value that your information must bring them in order for them to afford to provide you with free services.  Google is a simple but great example.  In exchange for providing you access to the WORLD’s information, they get to place ads next to their search listings with offers to entice you.  Google constantly refines how they decide what offers should appear as they figure out how to put information they have about you to better and better use.  Whether it be your search history, or where you last clicked on, or what people you know have clicked on.  Would you pay to use a search engine today?  I thought not.

As I read what Bynamite was offering, my first take was “this is great, about time someone helped us all understand what information all of these “trackers” have about us”, but as I realized that few people would likely pay for such an offering, it made me realize that in the end, Bynamite may just be wrapping themselves in the privacy flag to position a better mouse trap for getting access to a higher quality version of our data.  Once in hand, they can resort to the same business models that abound today for many media companies.

While I consider myself a pretty strong privacy advocate, I feel that the old adage “you can get any information from people by just offering a free t-shirt”, will make it difficult to enlist much of a following to support our need to have control over our own information, and to understand the effect of externalities that opened up as a result of no longer controlling our own information.


One response to this post.

  1. […]  Not to mention, that I'm not sure I see the business in privacy, as a stated in a previous post, versus the economic interests aligned against […]


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