Private Parts: unlikely advocate fights for online privacy, anonymity

MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…

approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2016

Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.

On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.

Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Oct. 21, 2016

Et tu, Google

Google has long portrayed itself as one of the good guys, and in many ways it continues to be that. I can’t think of any other insanely powerful mega-corporation that works so hard to advocate web accessibility and performance—although one of its recipes for improved web performance, making up a whole new proprietary markup language and then using its search engine dominance to favor sites that use that language and, of necessity, host their content on Google servers over sites that use standard HTML and host their own content, is hardly a white hat move. But that, too, is another story.

On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.

Minority Report

Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:

Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.

Individualized Ads on TV Could Be One Result of AT&T-Time Warner Merger by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, Oct. 26

An unlikely privacy advocate

Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:

Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …

The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27

What happens next

The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.


Co-published in Medium.

A List Apart № 421 Gets Personal

A List Apart Issue No. 421

THERE’S GREAT reading for people who make websites in Issue No. 421 of A List Apart:

Resetting Agency Culture

by Justin Dauer

Forget Air Hockey, Zen Gardens, and sleep pods: a true “dream” company invests in its people—fostering a workplace that supports dialogue, collaboration, and professional development. From onboarding new hires to ongoing engagement, Justin Dauer shares starting points for a healthy office dynamic and confident, happy employees.


Crafting a Design Persona

by Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek

Every product has a personality—is yours by design? Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek shows you how Weather Underground solved its personality problems by creating a design persona, and teaches you collaborative methods for starting a personality adjustment in your company.


We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.

Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.

My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.

But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:

Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.

Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.

Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.