How many of you use Facebook? Google? I must confess, despite the dire warnings regarding data retention, I still use Google. I have never used Facebook and am unlikely to do so in the future. Not just because of the cavalier attitude the company has towards the personal privacy of its users, but because I find the concept facile and, frankly, about as useful as a sequined satin space suit.
It seems, however, there is a groundswell of others who are alarmed at the routine data gathering that this company (and Google) engages in. I think, though, for those of us who have been taking notice, this is nothing new. All of these organisations survive by gathering information and selling adverts as a consequence. So, when you do that search, Google will target you with adverts based on that search and it is that targeting that they sell to the advertisers. Facebook is doing the same. The advertisers see this as a rich seam to be mined and who can blame them?
Well, maybe, cobber, maybe. I’ve not seen an Internet advert for ages. Indeed, I really cannot recall when I last saw one. So, even though Google may well be selling my search data, it isn’t doing anyone any good, because Adblock means that I will never see the results.
Enter the regulators as our virtual marriage guidance counsellors.
This should be interesting…
Last week the EU commissioner for citizenship voiced her concern about how net firms were sharing data and talked up EU plans to overhaul data laws.
Why does the term “unintended consequences” spring unbidden to my mind at this point? There are means that the user can call upon to protect online privacy should they so wish. And, while I deplore the tendency to snoop on the part of these companies, I also feel that the cure will be worse than the disease. Not least when there are very simple solutions to targeted advertising. And, let’s be fair, there are some people who like to receive such ads. I know, it beats me too, but it takes all sorts.
And in the US, the Federal Trade Commission published its views on Facebook’s changes to privacy settings in 2009 and concluded that it had engaged in “unfair and deceptive” practices.
Well, yeah… So now tell us something we didn’t already know. This has been common knowledge for some time now and still people sign up for it. they must do so in the full knowledge of what has been in the public domain for some years now. And Facebook does have privacy settings that the user can invoke. This, along with Adblock will sort out any intrusive advertising.
It suggests that 2012 could see a change in the balance of power between net firms and citizens, with citizens, for once, holding the upper hand.
This of course will be a good thing, providing they mean “citizen” and not “government”.
The relationship between advertisers, the public and net firms is a tricky one, says Nick Stringer, director of regulatory affairs at the Internet Advertising Bureau.
“Data drives the advertising model but it needs to be balanced with privacy,” he said.
“Advertising funds the web services that we use so there has to be a trade-off. Consumers may not be aware of how Facebook and Google make their money but they are very happy to use the service and would not want to pay for it,” he said.
And there is the crux. We want the service, but don’t want to pay for it. Yet it has to be paid for somehow. So this balancing act ensues. Indeed, I have heard of advertisers accusing those who block adverts of stealing content. There was one such person who accused those of us who time-shift our television viewing so that we can skip the ads of doing the same thing. However, that is just silliness. Advertisers pay the producer of the content to place its advertisements. It does not place an onus on the viewer to actually look at the advert. Indeed, I have no problem with adverts being used to fund services. I have no qualms about blocking them, either. The exchange has taken place and money changed hands as a consequence. There is nothing that the advertisers pitch at me that I would want to buy and I have no contract with them, so not looking at them shortcuts the relationship as far as I am concerned. And, yes, I am aware that here is a strange double standard going on here.
But privacy campaigners remain suspicious of who targeted advertising is actually helping. Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has this week added her voice to the debate, claiming that it needs to be made far easier for people to opt out of receiving such ads.
But it is. Just Google Adblock….