There is a discomforting commonality between some of the largest Internet companies – Google and Facebook, specifically – and the US National Security Agency. While one group takes our information with our tacit consent and the other takes it without our knowledge, both are making assumptions on our behalf about about what is good for us when it comes to online privacy.
In the NSA’s case, the assumption is that people need to sacrifice some privacy – well, rather a lot, as it turns out – in order to enable the government and its intelligence apparatus to prevent terrorist attacks.
In Google and Facebook’s case, it’s that people need to sacrifice some privacy in order to enjoy the benefits of a more “open and connected” world that offers convenient access to Web services, automatic synching of data across devices, and powerful personalization, all of which also happen to come with targeted advertising.
We really ought to be upset about the status quo in both cases. It’s not that none of us can agree that both arguments have valid points; it’s that the decisions in each are being made above our heads and then imposed upon us with inadequate alternatives.
In the case of Google and Facebook, we are given the option to opt out of the data-sharing that is tied to “improving the user experience.” If we are savvy and patient enough to navigate Facebook’s complicated privacy options, we can restrict what people see on our profiles, we can stop our personal information being shared with outside networks, and we can ensure that the photos we share on the platform are visible only to our closest friends. Of course, the best way to avoid any leakage of such personal information is to just not take part in Facebook in the first place – but there are costs, both social and technological, to that.
For Google, we can turn off the “Search Plus Your World” function, which integrates and takes into account our social data in determining what to show us. But to do so we have to click a button that gives us the option to “hide these private results” (interesting choice of words). We can also use the “Incognito” version of the Chrome browser to mask our digital tracks; we can turn off cookies; or, if we’re really serious, we can use a virtual private network, which costs money and adds another layer of complication between us and the information we seek to access.
But in all those cases, the actions that protect our privacy, the moves that provide some insulation from the Internet companies’ presumptuous decision-making, require us to: 1) be aware that we are compromising our personal data just by using these services; and 2) be motivated enough to act to protect our data. While most of us, including me, stop at that second step, that doesn’t necesarily mean that we would prefer that the default setting of the Internet should be “use our data as you like” – in many cases, it just means that we’re lazy enough to want to avoid any annoyances that might slow down our Internet experience.
But what it it were the other way around? What if the default setting of the Internet was not “frictionless sharing,” as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has proselytized, but “frictionless privacy”?
That’s an idea put forward by Gabriel Weinberg, the founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, a search engine that allows you to find online information anonymously. At April’s Gel Conference in New York City, Weinberg told the audience that he wants people to be able to switch to his privacy-protecting search engine with little or no sacrifice.
Weinberg’s definition of “frictionless privacy” is in this case limited to the idea that people should easily be able to evade the privacy-compromising services without sacrificing utility. But what if it were pushed further? Why shouldn’t we have an Internet in which the first assumption is that we all want to retain our right to privacy? Rather than signing in to Spotify and finding that it is automatically sharing our listening habits with our friends, why can’t we just click one big button to say, “Yes, I want my friends to see what I’m listening to!” Or, in Google’s case, why can’t we just start in (real) private mode and have one big button that says, “Yes, I want the full Google experience!”
The reasons, for now, are economic. Internet companies, for the most part, are financially incentivized to assume for us that we prefer to share our data in order to get the goodies. That they’re allowed do so ought to cause us consternation for the same reasons that many of us are uncomfortable that the NSA can scrutinize our data at whim.
At the very least, we should be agitating for more alternatives. No one is forcing us to use Facebook or Google, but few people are pushing us strongly in other directions. That’s why DuckDuckGo is such an interesting project, and why Gabriel Weinberg might turn out to be a very important advocate for anonymity. It’s also why I’m happy to announce that he’s the next guest on our PandoWeekly radio show, which airs Friday at 3pm EST and can be donwloaded here afterwards.
As Weinberg said about online privacy in his Gel Conference speech, “The problem is not that people don’t care, it’s that they haven’t had a choice.”