Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The more people know about the ways they're tracked online, the less they like it

Technology confronts society with new questions. Big questions.
  • How do I manage my time?
  • How do I stay involved with what/who I care about?
  • What do I pay attention to?
The Internet has thrust another big question into the forefront, one that is as important to our daily lives as it is to the principles of our democracy: how do I maintain my privacy?

The more people know about the ways in which they're being tracked online, the less they like it. Advertisers, media companies, and proprietors of ecommerce portals argue that the more they know about you, your interests, and your behavior, the more vibrant and rewarding your user experience will be.

Amazon is a prime example. They know what products you buy from their site, what products you browse through, the products you review, the products you own, etc. As a result, they can declare with empirical clarity that people who buy Jay-Z's latest album also frequently buy albums by Drake and Kid Cudi. To them, reduced privacy is the price you pay for accurate recommendations. The same is true of businesses like Netflix (recommending DVD rentals) and Google (showing ads based on your search terms and sites you've visited in the past).

This argument has some validity, but it falls short in its quest to reduce privacy to an afterthought in the minds of citizens and consumers. A lack of transparency leads to an excess of suspicion, and this is more true in advertising and business than anywhere. Just as those who are willing to give up freedom for "security" deserve neither, those who would sacrifice privacy for marginally improved ads should value their attention more.

The challenge of balancing privacy with a better user experience presents tremendous opportunity for innovation in governance and in business. Being upfront with constituents and customers lifts innovators from a state of intellectual laziness to one of creative courage. It is the latter approach that has the promise to fuel the remaking of government and of business for the better... not the former.


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