Soul For Sale -- My Privacy Be Damned!

People tend to get up in arms easily over personalization and privacy issues. We don't want to be tracked, we don't want to be bought and sold, and we certainly don't want anyone thinking they know what's best for us.


I've heard -- or read -- this last complaint multiple times over the past week. If search results are too personalized, the story goes, you'll miss out on all that wonderful non-personalized content you've been ingesting. You won't get to laugh delightfully at that random video about babies or kittens, the one you never would have found had it not been for the sheer serendipity of the untargeted Interweb.

We don't know what we don't know, but we know that we wish we knew it, whatever it was.

But here's the thing: as much as we want to stumble across every interesting tidbit out there, each of us will still only ever intersect with a microfraction of the content in the world. And let's do a quick poll: Do you suffer from too little information or too much?



I was pondering my own personal information overload as I skimmed through the 100 or so Google Alerts, MediaPost columns, and other assorted emails I read every week as preparation for this column. I was thinking how great it would be if I could have a sort of personalized Alltop for column ideas, something that trolled through my Inbox for me, sorted out the repeats and popular story threads, and figured out which sixteen links I would click on. It would have to be beyond personalized; it would have to know what I liked and disliked, what I had the potential to like or dislike, what I thought was a good idea for an article and which good ideas were over my head.

I don't care what the publishers and BT companies tell you; people don't care about seeing more relevant ads. Those ads are the price. The carrot is helping us cut to the chase. Our need to keep our heads above the buffeting waves of information is getting stronger by the day -- and we pay for the life jacket with our private data.

We pay for Amazon's effortless recommendations. We pay for Google's personalized search results. We pay through the nose for the ability to connect online.

We give up our data to the privacy gods because we recognize the benefits we get from doing so. We seem to have tossed the entire Internet into the same basket as bank loans and car insurance and doctors and therapists: If you want results, you have to swallow your prudishness and get naked.

I had the good fortune to see Hal Varian, Google's Chief Economist, speak a few months ago. He pointed out something that in retrospect is blindingly obvious: People aren't generally worried about the use of their data, they're worried about its mis-use.

We're worried that there'll be an AOL Valdez or that some 13-year-old will hack Facebook. Addressing those concerns calls more for a security discussion than for a privacy one -- but even the federal government seems to feel that unsolicited third-party ads are the biggest threat from an invasion of online privacy.

The fact that that's the case is a testament to how blessed we are, a tribute to the civil rights we take for granted. In countries that don't have our basic protections, privacy can serve as protection against jail or execution.

If third-party ads are all we have to worry about, I'll happily give up my privacy in exchange for a bit of personalized filtering. What's your price?

7 comments about "Soul For Sale -- My Privacy Be Damned!".
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  1. Alphonso Whitfield from Advanced Internet Technologies Inc., June 23, 2009 at 12:50 p.m.

    The antidotes to your dilemma and others that feel overwhelmed and abused is the combination of tyBit and tyVille. tyBit is a client side search engine that delivers unique results based on your search preferences that you define and tyVille is the only social network compensates its end users and gives control of its UGC real estate to its end users.

  2. Chris Nielsen from Domain Incubation, June 23, 2009 at 1:20 p.m.

    Maybe, but I think the answer is to start paying advertising companies less, and start paying users for the "privlege" of them reading your ads.

    Too many advertisers create an adversarial situation where they have to trap, trick, lure, bait, entice, and herd users to their message and their offer. The use of the word "herd" was intentional. We are not sheep and we get pretty upset when we feel we are being viewed as such.

    Many companies got a clue and are partnering with competitors, how long before they learn to partner with the users? Pay me some money and I'l open your spam eamail, pay me more and I'll read it, just a liitle more and i'll consider it (really, I will!).

    A few pennies in my account and I'll open your direct mail piece, but you'll have to trust me on that. If you want me to go to the computer and enter a verification code that I opened your email it's going to cost you another 5-10 cents.

    You can send junk faxes for about $0.30 each if you want,but telemarketing calls are going to set you back at least $1, and more like $3 if it's during dinner.

    This is no joke, I am completely serious. I used to have a paid subscription to a publication called "Computer Shopper". I loved that magazine. Why? Well, it had some pretty good articles, but mostly if was for all the great computer ads it had. The darned thing was 90% ads and a huge thing to boot.

    But back to online ads and privacy, Google has requested that all of it's publishers have privacy policies on their sites. My understanding is that they intend to start showing users ads, not always based on what the content of site is about, but based on what they seem to be interested in. So if you look for car information and then go to a finance site to look at auto loans, you might see ads for cars, not just other loan sites.

    I think this is a mistake. It's not a new idea and I think people resent being "followed", and ads that are not relevent to the site content will be a sign that this is happening.

  3. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, June 23, 2009 at 1:46 p.m.

    Another excellent piece that gets me thinking, Joe.

    I'm also hung up on the 'typical curve' of an internet user, in which early on we hang out in chat rooms, do a little a/s/l, then graduate to engage in passionate debate about religion or politics that we take very seriously, then get into social media and post every picture of our child and mention of our habits and whereabouts that pops into our minds. but then - THEN - something happens, we lose our innocence. We realize that chat rooms are mostly peopled by complainers; we realize that winning an argument online...well, there are some politically incorrect metaphors for how pointless that is. We either fear for our children's privacy and our own, or I think with most people, we just get more bored and more selective in what we say and when and where we say it. We put out less and less of a trail of behaviors; we may visit a few new sites but we have a surprisingly small universe of reliable go-to addresses. We've learned to use a different password for each of them.

    But the thing is - its exactly these seasoned internet personae who are most likely to make a serious purchase of a serious product either online or based on something they saw online. Skeptics are ultimately better customers than gullible people--they have a lot more money to spend, and will come back for more.

    So the paradox is, the people who are blathering about how much they love swimming and crochet and where their kids go to school and how long they're home alone after the bus drops them off - in other words, the ones blaring out private information - are less valuable to a marketer than the person who lurks on twitter, reads more than they post on facebook, and abandoned their Myspace page (or AOL or their Angelfire or Geocities, if they've been around longer) , but then goes online to buy their next car or dishwasher or get the best price on a travel package to Costa Rica.

    The blatherer might click on some diet ads or spend actual money to learn to make $1400 per second on Google but they probably won't do it twice; and eventually, I think they mature into the second type, if their personality permits it.

  4. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., June 23, 2009 at 3:47 p.m.

    @Chris Nielsen: You know, that's not the first time that idea has been bruited.

    To make it work, we'd need to start with an absolute-whitelist email standard. Unless they know you, nothing gets through - not even to a spambox.

    Then you create a bidding mechanism that lets us place access to ourselves on sale, based on a self-generated, but standard-format XML semantic representation of who we are, what we do, and other lifestyle points -- totally dissevered from our actual identity. So there's no real possibility of direct abuse - only indirect abuse by database analysis that ties our anonymous proxy record to semaphores of who we really are.

    There should be ways to make that very difficult. For example, a publisher or marketer looking for CIOs at companies over 1000 employees doesn't need gender or age in many cases. So the system might expose only portions of your identity relevant to a specific query, with strict heuristics preventing the sharing of data outside scope. Microsoft has been working on federated authentication systems on this spare data-interchange model for several years now.

    The central bidding engine establishes an effective market value for access to you in a particular marketing context, and manages the transaction with successful bidders (also working through automated systems). The winner gets a token that lets them send one or more communications, via your anonymizing proxies, that are guaranteed to reach you.

    And there you go. Basically, it's Google Ads for individuals, wrapped in trusted third-party security and federated semantic data-interchange. Technically, totally doable today.

  5. Bruce McDermott from Atom Valley, June 24, 2009 at 10:31 a.m.

    It struck me the other day how different my job is from you guys. You guys drive as much traffic as you can at a website and then try to identify the visitors through segmentation filters. The more segmentation you perform the more privacy you compromise. I believe you call this BI .. Business Intelligence.

    As an SEO, my job is directly the opposite. I create "products" that are designed to sit on the first page of a search engine for whatever terms I pre-determine my client's buyers are looking for. In other words, I pre-qualify my buyers before they ever get to my "product." I don't need to know their identities, their buying habits, their cat's name. All I need to know is the search phrase they use when they have their wallet out and they're ready to buy something.

    Can you see why my clients and advertisers love this? Low cost...maximum return.

    Trying to stuff something in front of someone's face because it showed up on his "permanent record" a week earlier is a very iffy situation. Your advertisers must hate BI and the bills they have to pay.

    Kaila, hope you NEVER encounter identity theft. If your "permanent record" gets hacked off a marketing server and linked to a mailing database with a simple php mashup, you may have wished you'd been a little more careful with your soul. Just saying...there is no perfect security online and everyone has a right to protect their privacy.

  6. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, June 24, 2009 at 11:33 p.m.

    Thanks for all your comments! And yes, Bruce, I also hope I'm never a victim of identity theft. Just a quick question, though: who exactly are 'you guys'?

  7. Bruce McDermott from Atom Valley, June 25, 2009 at 1:16 p.m.

    "You guys" = hardcore analytics and BI guys that don't seem to be aware that proper keyword content and coding of a website provide instant access to a motivated buyer. (yes I'm guilty of generalizing here)

    I would hazard a guess that the majority of the commercial website's on the Internet are missing thousands of buying terms that buyers use regularly. And those websites that try to target high conversion terms have them coded in a way that makes them invisible to search engines.

    It's too bad Internet marketers are still treating the Internet as if it were television. It's more closely related to driving a car than it is to television. The viewer wants total control of their experience. Advertising on the Internet has become nothing more than a distraction while the viewer tries to get to where he really wants to go.

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