A few reflections from my notes of public reaction to last weekend’s events.
Advertising is the main source of revenue for publishers on the Web, including the lords of sharecropping empires such as Facebook and Google. Revenue from advertising varies hugely with how well the message targets the audience. Targeting requires getting to know the target – which is the business that Facebook and Google are in : getting the user to find them useful and trust them so that he willingly provides them with their raw material.
I used to enjoy giving the publishers a lot of data in return for personalization and services – even considering the risks. Yes, we knew the risks – but they are the sort of risks that we are notoriously bad at evaluating. Most of us have probably read at least a dozen different tales of Orwellian dystopias – yet our productive relationship with service providers let us convince ourselves that betrayal won’t happen. We were so complacent that it might be argued that we asked for this.
So why are we surprised ? The surprise is in the scale of the abuse. Corruption always exists at the margins of any system that is sufficiently slack to let alternative ways thrive and supply the mainstream with fresh ideas. A society with no deviance at its margins is totalitarian – so we live with that some antisocial behaviour as a cost of doing business in a society that values individual freedom.
But today we find that the extent of corruption is not restricted to the margins – we find that most of what goes on there among people we entrusted with extreme power at the core of the state entirely escapes oversight and drifts into mass surveillance which is known to asphyxiate societies. That much corruption was a risk that we were warned against, but seeing it realized is still a nasty surprise.
Again, this is not about lawful surveillance under democratic oversight, which is as acceptable as ever – this is about the dangerous nature of massive untargeted surveillance outside of democratic control. But public opinion reeling from the shock will probably be blind to the difference – it is now likely to be wary of anything that even remotely smells of surveillance.
Of course, not everyone has yet realized the tradeoffs that modern communications entail and that they have always been making, even if unwittingly – public awareness of privacy issues is not going to arise without continued evangelism anytime soon. But a host of users has awoken to realize that they were sleepwalking naked on Main Street. What will they do now ?
Considering how mainstream audiences have long happily kept gobbling up toxic information from the mass media, I am not holding my breath for a violent phase transition – but a new generation of privacy militants might just have been given birth and I wonder how much they will nudge the information industry’s trajectory. In any case, they will not make the Internet more welcoming to it.