There have been countless articles and endless claims by publishers trumpeting self-regulation as the best means for dealing with consumer privacy. Publishers claim they're in the best position to protect their users.
And they are completely full of crap.
The executive suite of nearly every publisher, ad network, and agency is where the problem starts. That's where they strategize on how to capture consumer data, and jockey for position to own the data. They construct complex Terms of Service that attempt to legitimize their raping consumers of their privacy, and bury the TOS on their site, knowing full well that nobody reads them. Then they maximize profits by selling out on privacy the first chance they get.
They prey upon the very people they are claiming to protect.
The very definition of fraud is to knowingly make false statements to mislead someone for financial gain. When you compare the banner of privacy being waved, versus the actual practices of today's online publishers, it is hard to reach any other conclusion.
Obviously not all publishers are guilty, but the practices are far more widespread than our industry would like to acknowledge.
Why Does It Happen?
The origins of the fraud are easy to trace back.
As an industry, we became obsessed with data. Our advertisers started clamoring for better metrics, better targeting, and more data. The real problems started when advertisers began offering to pay premiums in exchange for this data. We could not resist the urge to placate them.
When you provide someone a financial incentive to make the wrong decision, it is not challenging to predict the result.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
Perhaps the greatest irony in this situation is that publishers will be the losers long-term.
Our failure to self-regulate is only going to lead to more spectacular examples of breaches of privacy, and force the legislative hammer to overcorrect.
As humans, we are horrible at long-term thinking. Few of us have the willpower to swallow the pill of short-term sacrifice in exchange for long-term gain.
The pledges of privacy around the industry ring hollow. At best, publishers protect user privacy the same way we make our New Year's Resolutions: we have the best of intentions when we make them, but quickly fall back into our old routines.
Privacy Still Matters
We can lie to ourselves and pretend that consumers no longer care about their privacy, or even worse, convince ourselves that privacy no longer matters. Both are huge mistakes.
The reality is that a huge percentage of consumers are still very much protective of their privacy. Ultimately, it all comes down to value. Consumers have proven again and again that they will gladly exchange their privacy if they perceive that the value outweighs the risks, but it is up to them to make that choice.
TechCrunch's Mike Arrington recently weighed in on this issue with his column "Ok You Luddites, Time to Chill Out On Facebook Over Privacy," where he opined, "The fact is that privacy is already really, really dead." Unfortunately, Arrington's got this one dead wrong.
His view that "we don't really care about privacy anymore" presumes that all consumers share a single perspective on privacy. A quick look at recent studies, the reaction by Facebook users to changes in privacy, and even many of the 188 comments on Arrington's own article clearly demonstrate that this is not the case.
More important, the notion that it is okay for Facebook and others to tweak their privacy policies or push us to expose data just because it is in their own best interests is plain wrong. Facebook may have a great product, but with an unparalleled set of user data, the slightest misstep will make the company a lightning rod for an enormous legislative (over)reaction.
Zuckerberg and the CEOs of other large consumer sites need to step up as the champions of privacy. They need to get out in front of the problem, before the government flattens them.
In the Microscope
The scary part is that technology is moving faster than our society can keep up. We do not yet fully understand the ramifications of a perpetually connected society where our exact location, our list of friends, our personal photos and other sensitive data are available for the whole world to see. At the very least, we would be well served to tread carefully.
As the increased legislative interest should not-so-subtly demonstrate, we have a target on our collective asses.
The cold reality is that there is massive friction created when you put companies in charge of protecting user privacy, when they are economically incentivized not to do so.
For the benefit of both society and our livelihoods, someone needs to act.