Recently a non-techie friend wrote to me saying they felt “creepy” being “tracked” and wished the web were “not about money”.
I cannot denigrate those fears and noble hopes. But I tried to answer with a reasonable response.
Here is what I said:
Tracking/privacy is a complicated issue for some. My feeling is this: creating content costs money, sometimes lots of it. Discounts on sites like amazon also “cost money”. So the only way to have content you don’t pay for is to give something to the site owners…typically this is anonymous user information. And they really do use much of it to improve the user experience–I know this because they tell me that is what they do. Advertisers also try to spend more efficiently by showing ads more to people they think might buy, much the way a gun magazine will sell gunsights and a parenting magazine will sell diapers.
As far as privacy…to me it isn’t much different than when you walk into a store and the shop owner sees you and probably watches you looking at stuff on the shelf and then writing down somewhere what you bought, and when, so they can get an idea of what is popular. And if you ask for (search for) something they don’t have, they may have it next time you show up. And they might even recognize you too. And if you sign their register (log in), they know your name. So, wanting to come into a store and be totally invisible seems to me kind of unreasonable. Most of web analytics isn’t much more than the digital version of this.
Personally I don’t care how much marketers know. The fact is, they hardly know what to do with the info anyway because there is just too much of it.
That said, I think it is just as legitimate to try and be as untrackable as you can be, that’s why they call it a free country. There are rogue, bad actors out there, involved in identity theft, etc., but that’s a whole different nest of vipers. The real problem is if government gets involved. If government starts spying secretly, that’s really bad. I don’t know of any cases where a company is being used as a front by actual spies but its certainly possible.
On a related note, after a recent panel appearance that touched on privacy (and in which I suggested that Americans had “given up the ghost” on privacy), an audience member told me that the reason Europeans have a harder time dealing with being tracked is that “some have a little bit of a different experience when it comes to government spying than Americans do”.
I couldn’t tell how far back he was ranging–Cold War or WW2–but I thought it was a legitimate point. And I agree–marketers can do their worst, and all it means is perhaps unwanted, tacky ads and a no-pay-wall internet; while governments can lock you away. So I do continue to believe there should be a clear separation of ads and state!