You may be wondering, why is the internet so bad at getting you information you want and need?
Funny story. Months ago I went shopping for a dishwasher. I bought one. Today, about half of my web browsing is populated with ads for appliances. A digital dishwasher-stalker. I can’t get it to stop.
We’re living in the world of push marketing, as websites now routinely cookie your browsing history and then haunt you with ads and offers. It’s bad. Really bad.
But as it now exists, the brand or company with the most cash to burn is going to jam its often-irrelevant information into your increasingly overwhelmed feed.
Still, there is hope on the horizon.
Starting Jan. 1 a new law in California goes into effect requiring businesses to make changes like adding a “Do Not Sell My Info” button on their homepage.
It’s called the California Consumer Privacy Act -- the CCPA -- and it’s awesome.
“This is a new human right. It’s like a new civil right,” said Alastair Mactaggart, a real estate developer and privacy advocate in San Francisco whose self-funded ballot initiative started the move that got the law passed.
Mactaggart says he became focused on data privacy after a Google engineer warned him, “If people just understood how much we knew about them, they’d be really worried.” Yup.
Personal information that the law gives consumers control over includes the usual stuff including emails, Social Security number, passport and driver’s license numbers. But it goes further, to IP address, browsing history, biometrics, records of purchases, geolocation, employment, and education.
According to the new law, personal information is anything that “could reasonably be linked, directly or indirectly, with a particular consumer or household.”
That brings me to the Steve-Bot. Once I have control over my personal data -- experts say regulations like the CCPA are likely to spread to other states -- then I can TELL the internet what I want it to know.
So, for example, the Steve-Bot can say “Steve is looking to buy a dishwasher” and then all the retailers of appliances can let the Steve-Bot know about deals, discounts, and other enticements to get his business. Once I’ve got my dishwashing needs taken care of, I adjust the Steve-Bot, and it no longer shops for dishwashers.
Take a moment to think about all the information you are force-fed that is completely irrelevant. I get information about children’s after-school art programs. Maybe because I went to the Big Apple Circus last New Years? I’m currently tracked by 134 ad networks (I checked at adssettings.google.com -- check yours, you may be shocked).
But imagine how much better your digital experience could be if YOU controlled your data? If you could express your preferences in music, food, travel, fashion, investments, real estate, the environment, and politics.
Uh, oh. Are we arriving at the future that my friend Eli Pariser so brilliantly foresaw in his prescient book “The Filter Bubble” back in 2009?
Well, it turns out, in a rare moment of bipartisan political lawmaking, Capital Hill has a bill to deal with that issue. The Filter Bubble Transparency Act requires companies to let users know that their platforms use algorithms to determine what information is shown and offer users the opportunity to opt out of algorithmically filtered content.
"We need common ground and a common sense of the truth now more than ever, and I’m glad this bipartisan group of Senators is taking up that important charge,” Pariser told the Hill.
So both CCPA and The Filter Bubble Transparency Act are clues about a better future, where web users can control data, and know when data is being secretly filtered to target them.
It’s an important and critical time in the evolution of the internet, and how the extraordinary power of our personal data could shape or distort our digital future.
So, please excuse me as I go to tell my Steve-BOT that I'd like to see a live jazz performance in New York this weekend, and then let it go in search of tickets and venues that might make for a nice evening out.
The data is out there. I just need to control who reaches me and how it fits my schedule, tastes, and interests.
Steve-Bot, go get me some data, please.