Relative Privacy

No one likes being spied on. If you need proof, look no further than the push-back against TSA’s body scanners, concerns about unmanned aerial drones, or the recent clamor over online privacy policy changes. While I don’t think much about my own privacy – I never cared who saw me naked or heard what I’m ranting about with friends – but raising two daughter has added perspective to my hippie-dippie attitude.

I recently found them both at the playground…  in Google Maps’ street view. Granted no one but my wife and I would’ve identified them, but it gave me pause.

There has been much talk about browser privacy recently. The NY Times recently weighted in claiming that browsing the Internet is “like that dream where you realize that your suddenly stark naked,” and then implied that your searches would affect your health insurance and credit ratings.

But none of these discussions have looked at the benefits of giving up a little of ourselves. If we show a little skin while online, what do we get in return? In part, we get the free services we’ve come to expect from the Web.

Let’s start in the past, in the pre-Web days of my teenage years. The 1980’s. (Yeah, it’s been that long…) Back then the only free we could find was on TV. It was “free” in that we didn’t have to pay to watch a program. We just had to tune it at a given time, in a given location, and deal with 18 minutes of advertisements each hour or a bit over an hour of ads per day for the average American.

I can still sing the Oreos cookie jingle even though I hate Oreos cookies. But that’s what advertising was back then: a wide net thrown over a large, and largely-unknown, audience. They needed 18 minutes each hour because the odds of them hitting their target audience was low. I know many freelancers that charge more than $90/hour – now consider the cost of this “free” TV.

Today’s online advertising is much more targeted. The ubiquitous Google AdSense ads you see on many sites analyze the words on the page and place ads relevant to those words and, hopefully, the reader. If I were to use AdSense on this site, you’d likely see ads for Web hosting companies or Web development businesses as that’s what I primary write about. I think we can all agree that doesn’t invade anyone’s privacy.

But Google also knows that I searched for “bulk email service providers” recently and clicked through to a few pages that compared different services. On a techie blog they may serve up ads for SendGrid or MailChimp – in their eyes, I’m reading about Web development and I’ve recently been looking for a service to handle large mailing lists. When I click on one of those ads, the company placing the ad makes a payment to Google and Google gives some of that money to the site showing the ad.

How does Google know it was me that ran the bulk email search? That’s because I logged into my Google account to check the blogs and news sites that I follow. Google collects all those headlines for me and puts them into one convenient homepage. For “free” – again in quotes because instead of wasting 30% of my TV watching time watching ads, I’m giving Google access to my search results so that they can serve me fewer, better targeted ads. No Oreo cookies with this system.

It starts to get a little creepy when you consider Gmail. Google now has access to all the emails sent to and by me and can incorporate that information in targeting it’s ads. But I’m getting an email account for free. In fact I’m getting my personal email, several business email accounts branded with my domain name, and I can offer clients 10 emails addresses for each domain. Google Docs and Google Voice allows Google to add to it’s growing profile of me a few letters to Mom, our list of annual donations, voicemail messages, and whatever else I use those services for. But in return I get word processing, spreadsheet software, and long distance calling. All for “free.”

This is not limited to Google by any means. Any company making money off of ad sales is trying to get a better idea of who you are. In Google’s case, they give back something tangible. There are plenty of ad services that don’t give you anything directly. But with better targeted ads, the odds of you clicking on an ad for more information – the odds of that ad working – is greater which means more money to the site hosting the ad and less money being spent by companies advertising to you.

Kate Murphy’s NY Times article I mentioned at the top talks about how Google, for example, could sell their profile of me to heath insurers or credit rating agencies and thereby ruin my life. I don’t think so.

Google has by far the most information on me and, one assumes, the most accurate profile of my online life. Why would Google sell their unique advantage over the competition? Besides would a credit rating agency risk basing my credit score on the number of times I’ve Googled “bankruptcy?” I can think of no faster way to have the government drop a metric ton of regulation on an industry than to use such a broken metric.

Ms. Murphy’s suggest spending (her prices) $40 – $90/year to have a VPN shield your IP address or $55 – $85/year to host your domain’s email. She also suggests turning on the built-in privacy setting in most modern browsers. At least that doesn’t cost anything. Or does it?

Remember that 10-page blog post about with step-by-step instructions on how to setup a Windows machine for Drupal development? That took time to write and writers like to get paid. You didn’t have to buy a book or subscribe to a magazine for it. You got it for free. (No quotes, this time – you really did get it for free…)

At the risk of sounding communist, I do wish the Internet ran more like an open source project where we give according to our abilities and consume according to our needs and advertising was limited to  companies sponsoring projects that are then donated back to the community.

But let’s face it, advertising is big money and that’s why there is so much “free” online – it’s the same as those Oreos ads on TV, only fewer, better targeted, and more relevant. When you hide yourself from the ad networks, when you run around the Internet incognito, you make it harder to show ads that are relevant. You make sites put up more ads to make their money or hide behind taller and taller pay-walls as the NY Times has done. You make it harder for companies to keep “free” as the default price of services online.

For decades we were happy to give up 30% of our time to watch TV for “free.” Imagine if you went to a Web site and had to sit 18 minutes of commercials every hour? I don’t see that site making it to next week with that business model! But companies still have to make money and these days we have to give up a bit of ourselves, we have to show a little skin, if we want the Internet’s default price to be “free.”

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