A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Your Privacy, Your Data, Walled Gardens

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I’ve had some interesting stuff come across my desk this past week or so regarding social networks, privacy and related issues recently.

The most recent was an article in the Times Book Review this past Sunday (2/5/12) about Lori Andrews’ new book, “I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy,” which talks about the truths we all already know: those pictures of you at last weekend’s party can hurt you at tomorrow morning’s interview.

Nothing new about that. But the path we seem to be headed on here is. If these snippets of ourselves never really disappear, can they be used against us for all time? Suddenly, we all find ourselves in waters familiar to politicians seeking office, hoping nobody discovers what we did during our junior year abroad in Paris. And that those we were with aren’t motivated to tell all …

(On a side note, it will be interesting to see, if things do continue down this path, whether we change the unrealistic standards we seem to hold public figures to these days. Not that I’m looking to give anyone a pass on bad behavior, but that’s a whole other topic.)

And why do those tidbits follow us around year after year? Can’t we delete them. Some we can, but some we don’t control. We don’t control them because we don’t own them.

“If you’re not paying a company for the goods or services it’s providing, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

(Does anyone have a solid attribution for that quote – or its original wording? Countless variations abound …)

In his Bits blog post recently, Nick Bilton is wondering where his – and our – cut of the Facebook billions is. He’s asking why, if Facebook’s worth is built on the data that they have amassed on their members and sold to advertisers, why aren’t its members entitled to a cut?

The question comes down to whether the data belongs to them or is just about them.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out for the next generation. In some ways, there are parallels with broadcast media, where we’re provided content without cash payment, but give our attention (to advertising) in exchange. But broadcast media consumption is largely anonymous. Facebook and similar membership-based online consumption (and publishing) is 180 degrees opposite.

In Europe, there are already consumers who are fighting against what they say is Facebook’s disregard for privacy. Max Schrems is an Austrian law student. Accounts of his filings against Facebook are everywhere online. This Forbes article is an good starting point.

They may decide that what they’re getting is worth what they’re giving up, or they may move to the future equivalent of premium cable for a better experience.

If future online consumers refuse to give away their personal data for free, boy does that change the landscape of online business.

Finally, moving a bit further afield, this post from John Battelle asks whether the rise of Facebook and similar services is bad not just for Google (it is) but for us and the web in general.

Google depends on access to the web’s data to make its search results relevant and comprehensive. Google can’t access all the data that Facebook and other member-based services collect. Only members can access these walled gardens. (They won’t have access to everything, of course, but then, they don’t in the free and open version of the web, either.)

This becomes a larger issue than just Kindle vs. Nook or iTunes vs. other music services. It’s potentially the entire web experience being carved back up into what those of us with a few years under our belt remember as the days of AOL and CompuServe duking it out. Not pretty.

I hope I’m not coming across as Chicken Little here. I don’t think the sky is falling. It simply seems like the pendulum is swinging back from the semi-anarchist, “information wants to be free” early days of the web to something more in tune with our economy and society. That’s a good thing – creators should be paid for the content they create – but the road back to the middle turns out to be more twisted and interesting than I think anyone had expected.

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