The Continuing Big Brother Debate
Two recent developments once again raise the debate about the degree to which individual privacy on the Internet is under attack by publishers, marketers and their predatory algorithms -- or what is now known generally as "Big Brother."
First, there's the recent settlement of lawsuits brought against Facebook for its disastrous service called Beacon. Introduced in November 2007 to some fanfare, Beacon went down in flames because it displayed activities Facebook users undertook on other participating Web sites (i..e, ecommerce transactions) and listed those activities in users' newsfeeds viewable by all their friends. If my friends saw that I bought tickets to see the movie "The Reader," for instance, perhaps they would buy tickets, too. Opting out of the service was extremely difficult.
After a hue and cry, and users filing lawsuits, Facebook belatedly added an opt-in feature, but few used it. As part of the settlement of those suits, reports say that Facebook will end the program altogether (and establish a $9.5 million settlement fund, according to Mashable).
The other news -- from boston.com, the online home of The Boston Globe -- describes recent student research at MIT. Students in a class on ethics and the law undertook a project to see if sexual orientation of an individual could be determined by examining "friending" behavior on social networks.
Using their own software program called "Gaydar," these students "looked at the gender and sexuality of a person's friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction," according to The Globe. Apparently, the program was pretty accurate, especially for determining gay men (it was less accurate in predicting the orientation of women or bisexuality).
The Globe describes similar efforts that enabled researchers to determine likely political views and other traits.
Obviously, privacy matters. If we lived in a society that absolutely never discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation, political views and the like, determining such information about individuals wouldn't be an issue. But sadly, put into the wrong hands, such information could lead to very adverse outcomes for those involved.
Still, there is a virtuous use for information about people when used appropriately. The major search engines take as consent the entry of words or a phrase into a search box for serving up both organic and paid search results. These results are a genuine attempt to provide the links that will get searchers to where they want to go. And searchers assume that what they searched for cannot and will not be somehow used against them in the future.
Though Facebook was not doing anything like what the MIT researchers did, with Beacon the company failed in its first attempt to match advertising with online profiles and activities. Facebook didn't get even implied consent, so users were shocked to see their (presumably private) choices displayed to their friends.
Yet users, publishers and marketers all benefit from using available information to appropriately direct advertising that matches the interests and traits of any given individual. Shouldn't ads for a gay men's cruise, for instance, be displayed to men who can accurately be identified as being gay, and not to women or heterosexual men (as the current version of Facebook's Ad Manager makes possible)?
Search marketers are increasingly asked to extend our craft to social networks, and we should take an interest in the Facebook and MIT developments. While there are real reasons to resist programs that might adversely impact our civil liberties or personal safety, we should encourage and support the assessment of available data and analyses for matching ads to the specific profiles of individuals.
As the oldest child in my family, I'll admit to my own failings as the big brother to my younger brother and sister while growing up. I also like to think I've redeemed myself for my failings over the years. Through trial and error, and relying on the goodwill of my family members, I think I have, on balance, gotten it mostly right. And the benefits have accrued to everyone involved.
We should try to get online privacy concerns right, too. Big Brother, when it comes to matching the right ads to the right people at the right moment in time, need not be, in the final analysis, a bad thing.