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.

Instagram to third-party developers: drop dead

I’M pretty much done with Instagram. I never loved it, but it’s where most of my friends looked for my photos, so I made peace with it as a platform—and continued to use poor, old, widely unloved Flickr for more serious photo sharing. Now, though, for all I care, Instagram can get bent.

There’s a lot you can’t do with Instagram natively, but clever third-party programmers have made the platform useful and enjoyable for people who wanted more. And now, that’s over.

Instagram lowers the boom

On June 1, Instagram severely restricted what any third-party Instagram application can do. Not only can third-party apps no longer provide the features Instagram’s API supports but Instagram itself doesn’t offer; they can’t even compete with the restricted feature set Instagram natively provides.

The change in rules applies to all Instagram apps, on every mobile and desktop platform you can think of. Among the new restrictions:

  • Third-party apps can no longer display the Instagram feed.
  • They can no longer display “popular.”
  • They can’t show the follows or followers of any user profile.
  • Or let you download images.
  • Or let you like or comment on several images at once.
  • Or let you block tags and users of your choosing.

Most users didn’t need these features to enjoy Instagram, but they made it a far richer program for those who did. Nor does it look like Instagram intends to provide the functions it has just prevented the third-party apps from offering. The old Twitter gambit—learn from third-party apps; change your own offerings to match theirs; then change your API—looks positively user- and business-friendly by comparison. (More on the Twitter comparison in a moment.)

Instagram: success through limitation

Now, I have no problem with Instagram offering a limited feature set. Most great apps reach mass appeal precisely by focusing on a restricted feature set, designed for one or two use cases. And clearly Instagram knows how to reach mass appeal.

Instagram’s lack of feature depth has not prevented it from serving its core base of teenage celebrity photo followers. It doesn’t prevent entertainers and brands from using the platform as a publicity and marketing vehicle. It doesn’t stop amateur swimsuit models and photographers from building fan bases on the fringe of mainstream use. Those are the users and use cases Instagram was built to serve, and it serves them well. Its lack of additional features has never hurt it with these users, and its decision to kill off third-party apps shouldn’t cost Instagram a single customer from among the target user types I’ve just identified.

But it bugs me enough to make me walk away.

There’s two things here: one, the functionality Instagram has taken away mattered to me as a user. And two, I don’t like what this giant, ludicrously successful company just did to a bunch of small companies run by independent developers. I mean, it’s not like these third-party companies stole the API from Instagram. Instagram offered it—and for the reason every successful product does: to let other companies extend its capabilities and increase its passionate fan base.

Makes Twitter look like sweethearts

Twitter, again, is the perfect example. In 2006, it began building a following among people like you and me, while offering a very limited feature set. In the next few years, it extended its functionality by learning from its users and by monitoring the innovations pioneered by third-party products like Twitterific, Tweetbot, TweetDeck, and Hootsuite—innovations that made Twitter more popular and more essential to marketers, journalists, and other professional users. Eventually Twitter bought one of the third-party apps and incorporated its features (along with features developed by other third-party apps) into its core product.

Today, with Twitter’s offerings more robust as a consequence of this third-party development history, there’s arguably less need for some third-party Twitter apps. That is to say, even power users can have pretty feature-rich Twitter experiences while using Twitter’s native app or its website. Nonetheless, the third-party apps still exist, still offer experiences Twitter doesn’t, and still earn revenue for their designers and developers.

As an extremely active Twitter user for personal and business reasons, I sometimes find Twitter’s website or native app sufficient to my needs; and at other times, I need the power a third-party app provides. I know that Twitter hasn’t always made it easy for third-party developers—and I was personally chagrined when significant changes to Twitter’s API killed a little free product a design conference I co-founded built strictly for the pleasure of our attendees. But, Twitter didn’t murder its third-party ecosystem, and it didn’t obliterate features that matter to secondary but passionate users.

And Instagram just did.

Goodbye to all that

Instagram certainly won’t miss me, and its decision makers won’t read this. Nor, if they read it, would they care. So this is about me. And a slightly sick feeling in my stomach.

Not because I even really need those extra Instagram features. Flickr, while it yet lives, provides me with far richer layers of experience and capability than even the most tricked-out third-party Instagram app could dream of. I always used Instagram under protest, as a poor cousin. I used it because people were there, not because I liked it. I like Flickr, even though posting my photos there is kind of like leaving flowers at the grave of someone whose name I’ve forgotten.

No, I feel queasy because I can’t decide whether Instagram is just a bully that decided to beat up the small fry independent developers, or (more likely) a clumsy, drunken giant that doesn’t feel the bodies squashing under its feet.

And we thought Instagram was over when they changed the logo last month.


See also:

Love. Listen. Learn.

NOTE: Below is a transcript of my aural contribution to Episode № 185 of The ShopTalk Show (“This Idea Must Die”):

AS A COMMUNITY, we have to stop demonizing those with whom we disagree.

Attacking the intelligence, moral fiber, and grip on sanity of those who hold opinions contrary to ours is nothing new on the internet. It’s as old as newsgroups. A minute after somebody started alt.opinions.design, a second person signed up just to tell the first person to screw off.

And of course it’s even older than that. Progressive groups that try to bring positive change to their community are always splitting into factions that despise each other. If you’ve seen Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” and remember the sequence where the zealots are sitting in an ancient square, attacking other zealot groups for being “splitters,” you have a good idea of how far back this goes.

To J. Edgar Hoover, there was no difference between Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky—but, boy, did the Stalinists and Trotskyites disagree with that point of view. Ask two Communists a question and you’ll get three answers and four bullets. And, minus the bullets, the same is true for social-progress-minded web designers and developers. And equally true for reactionaries, who think the system is fair for everyone, since it’s always been good to them.

Until we are free to disagree on the most sensitive of subjects without maligning each other’s integrity, we will not be able to solve the biggest problems we face as a people and an industry.

I’m Jeffrey Zeldman. Thanks for listening.


I encourage you to listen to Episode № 185 of The ShopTalk Show (“This Idea Must Die”).

A Beautiful Life

LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.

The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”

Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.

Online Training to Make Sites and Apps Accessible

ACCESSIBILITY IS LIKE the weather: everyone talks about it, but not enough of us do anything about it. Austin-based Knowbility is one of the few groups in the world with the commitment and expertise to change this. If enough of us fund their new IndieGogo project, they’ll gain the resources they need to create online modules that teach the world how to make our sites work for people with disabilities. This is a cause any web designer or developer should be able to get behind.

I love the web because it is democratic, agnostic, and empowering. Progressive enhancement, responsive design, and other core components of standards-based web design are all about making sure that the experiences we create online are available to any person, via any browser, on any device. That promise is the heart of web accessibility. It will seem obvious to most folks reading this page that a site that works for all is way better than a site that works only for some.

Yet, for all the sophistication and excitement of modern web design, accessibility remains the least-taught, least-understood, least-cared-about of all our new and classic best practices. Let’s help Knowbility change that. Let’s help them help us, and, by extension, help everyone who uses the web (or tries to).

Please contribute to, and spread the word about, Online Training to Make Sites and Apps Accessible: http://is.gd/knowbility. And please hurry! There are only five days left to make a difference.

Update

Here comes Phase II in the fundraising effort. Please visit this updated URL: http://is.gd/knowbility. You know what to do from there. Thanks!

Big Web Show № 109: Bring Me The Head of Tim Berners-Lee

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IN BIG WEB SHOW № 109, Robin Berjon and I enjoy a calm, rational conversation about EME, DRM, the MPAA, and the W3C. Enjoy.


The episode was sponsored by Squarespace. Links mentioned:

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.

37signals’ Jason Fried live today on The Big Web Show

I have known 37signals CEO Jason Fried since he was a young copywriter who reminded me of me, only smarter and more confident. Like many of you, with a mixture of awe and pleasure, I have watched him change our industry, along with book publishing and business generally. Dan Benjamin and I are delighted to announce the mercurial Mr Fried as our guest on The Big Web Show. Join us today, 1 July 2010, for the live taping at 1:00 PM ET.

Jason’s official bio is brief, but he can write at length when he wishes: see Rework, Getting Real, and Defensive Web Design, each a classic, and to each of which he was principal co-writer and guiding force. Besides saying no to meetings, contracts, and VC money, Jason and 37signals are famous for godfathering a speedy, iterative form of web application design; for gifting the industry with Ruby on Rails; for creating a suite of beloved (yes, really) business productivity web apps; for mastering and then abandoning client services in favor of making stuff; for somehow, in the midst of all that busyness, churning out tons of fine content on their popular blog; and for being roommates with the equally fantastic Coudal Partners.

Can’t wait to interview Jason Fried in front of a live internet audience today. Hope you’ll join us.

The Big Web Show is taped live in front of an internet audience every Thursday at 1:00 PM ET on live.5by5.tv. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards (often within hours of taping) via iTunes (audio feed | video feed) and the web.

Photo © John Morrison – Subism.com

Crowdsourcing Dickens

As an experiment in new new media thinking, I recently crowdsourced a new new literature version of Charles Dickens’s musty old old old lit chestnut, Great Expectations—the familiar tale of Pip, Ms Havisham, the convict Magwitch, et al.

Creative excellence and spin-worthy results required a pool of 10,000 people who had never read Great Expectations. Fortunately, I had access to 10,000 recent American college graduates, so that was no problem.

To add a dab of pseudoscience and appeal obliquely to the copyleft crowd, I remixed the new work’s leading literary themes with the top 20 Google search queries, using an algorithm I found in the mens room at Penn Station.

The result was a work of pure modern genius, coming soon to an iPad near you. (Profits from the sale will be used to support Smashing Magazine’s footer and sidebar elements.)

Gone was the fusty old title. Gone were the cobwebbed wedding cake and other dare I say emo images. It was goodbye to outdated characters like Joe the blacksmith and the beautiful Estella, farewell to the love story and the whole careful parallel between that thing and that other thing.

Gone too was the tired old indictment of the Victorian class system, and by implication of all economic and social systems that separate man from his brothers in Christ, yada yada. As more than one of my young test subjects volunteered in a follow-up survey, “Heard it.”

In place of these obsolete narrative elements, the students and the prioritized Google searches created, or dare I say curated, a tale as fresh as today’s algorithmically generated headlines.

The results are summarized in the table below.

Old Great Expectations New Great Expectations
On Christmas Eve, Pip, an orphan being raised by his sister, encounters the convict Magwitch on the marshes. n/a
The convict compels Pip to steal food from his sister’s table, and a file from her husband the blacksmith’s shop. Pip thereby shares the convict’s guilt and sin—but his kindness warms the convict’s heart. Guy on girl
Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, abuses him. Her husband loves Pip but is unable to protect him or offer him a future beyond blacksmithing. Girl on girl (multiple entries)
Pip meets Miss Havisham, an old woman abandoned on her wedding day, who sits in her decrepit house, wearing a yellowing wedding gown, her only companion the beautiful and mysterious girl Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella, but Miss Havisham has trained the girl to break men’s hearts. Guy on guy
Pip visits Miss Havisham until his apprenticeship with Joe the blacksmith begins. Pip hates being a blacksmith and worries that Estella will see him as common. Two girls, one guy
Mrs Joe suffers a heart attack that leaves her mute. A kind girl named Biddy comes to take care of Mrs Joe. After Mrs Joe’s death, Biddy and Joe will marry. Meanwhile, Pip comes into an unexpected inheritance and moves to London, where he studies with a tutor and lives with his friend Herbert. Dragons
Pip believes Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that she intends him to marry Estella, whom he still adores. Day by day, Estella grows more cruel. Pip never tells her of his love for her. Wizards
One stormy night, Pip discovers that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but the convict Magwitch. The news crushes Pip, but he dutifully allows Magwitch to live with him—worrying, all the while, because Magwitch is a wanted man who will be hanged if discovered. Explosions
Miss Havisham repents having wasted her life and perverted Estella. She is caught in a fire. Pip heroically saves her but she later dies from her burns. Soon afterwards, Pip and Herbert try to help Magwitch escape, but Magwitch’s old enemy Compeyson—who happens to be the man who abandoned Miss Havisham at the altar—betrays Magwitch to the authorities. Magwitch and Compeyson struggle. Compeyson dies and Magwitch is taken to prison. Gunfights
Pip now realizes that Magwitch is a decent man and tries to make Magwitch’s last years happy ones. He also discovers that Magwitch is Estella’s father. Magwitch dies in prison shortly before he was to be executed. Pip tells the dying Magwitch of his love for Estella. Fistfights
Pip becomes ill and is nursed back to health by Joe, whom Pip recognizes as a good man in spite of his lack of education and “class.” Pip goes into business overseas with Herbert. Eventually he returns to England and visits Joe, who has married Biddy. They have a child named Pip. As the book ends, the middle-aged Pip makes one last visit to Miss Havisham’s house, where he discovers an older and wiser Estella. There is the implication that Pip and Estella may finally be together. Anal

In-Box Twenty

Found in my in-box on this gloriously muggy morning:


  • E-mail from a neighborhood mom interested in hiring our child’s nanny in September, when the girl enters kindergarten. Would our nanny work part-time? (No, she would not.)
  • Invitation to speak.
  • Account status message from American Express, freezing my business account.
  • Personal letter from a co-author of CSS.
  • Correspondence from one half of a feud, demanding that A List Apart delete “libelous” comments made by the other half.
  • QA correspondence on Brighter Planet beta.
  • Photo of kid on general store porch-front rocking horse, sent by ex, from mini-vacation they’re taking together.
  • Responses from speakers selected to present at An Event Apart in 2010.
  • Discussion of “send to friend” links in context of COPPA compliance.
  • Raw personal truth from my dear sponsee.
  • Notes from a developer whose web fonts platform I’m beta testing.
  • Query from a mom whose friend is expecting: what do we pay our nanny? Would she take less? (I hope not.)
  • Basecamp notifications concerning Chapters 7, 9, 2, and 4 of Designing With Web Standards, 3rd Edition.
  • Invitation from a social media network’s director of strategic relationships.
  • Milestone reminder.
  • Note from my brother about the release of his CD.
  • Case study for review.
  • Notice of Credit Limit Reduction on my personal account from American Express. “In this difficult economic environment, we all need to make choices about how we spend and save.”
  • Discussions of Happy Cog new business activities in various stages of ripeness.
  • Note about a magic berry that will make me look like a princess.

Typical day.