should you be afraid of advertisers?

Internet advertisers are constantly watching your web activity, recording where you’ve been, what you’ve bought, who you’ve contacted.  Should you be afraid of online advertisers?

In a word:  No.  At least, I don’t think so, and of course there are people who disagree.  But I don’t like fear, I don’t like scare tactics, and I’d like to explain why I don’t think fear is the best choice here.

Some people seem to think there’s only two choices, two ways to respond when you find out just how much advertisers are tracking you.

One response is to try to block out tracking and advertising as much as possible.  Although there are some tools to help with this, it’s a neverending battle against a multi-billion dollar industry.  You’d have to go “off the grid” to fully prevent advertisers from knowing anything about you.  This kind of response is driven at least partially by fear.  Like I said, I don’t like fear.

The other response is to just let whatever happens, happen.  This is saying, “I don’t know and I don’t care what is happening with my information.”  Some people say this kind of response is about embracing the glorious future, but to me it seems like embracing apathy and ignorance.  I understand why this kind of response can be attractive, but it’s not for me.  I guess I like apathy and ignorance even less than fear.

I’d like to offer a third way:  Find out what they know, and use that information to make them help you.

What's in that notebook?

People describe online advertisers like this:  It’s as if there’s someone following you everywhere you go, writing down everything you do in a little notebook, so they can use those notes to sell stuff to you.

My response to that isn’t to run away from the guy with the notebook.  I’m not going to run and hide, but I’m also not going to stop caring that this guy with a notebook is following me around.  Instead, I want to look at the guy and say, “Hey buddy, what’s in that notebook?”  And then I’d like to tell him that he works for me now, he should be doing what I want him to do.

mission: control

Every company should have a clear mission statement – here’s ours:

Give consumers control over advertisers.

We think the world is headed to a place where advertisers know everything about you, and they constantly use that information to sell you things.  Some people want to avoid that world by blocking ads, or by asking the government to stop annoying ads. We don’t think that consumers can win by hiding, and we don’t think that the government will solve your problems.  We think that the only way to make advertisers less powerful is to make people more powerful.

You're in controlInformation is power.  The advertisers have information about you, but most of them won’t tell you what they know about you.  Bynamite finds out what advertisers know about you so that you get to control your own information, not them.  If an advertiser won’t let you control your own information, we opt you out of their networks.  We want to see a world where the most successful advertisers are the ones that give you the most control.

A lot of companies say things like “Join The Revolution!” or “Change The World!” – when all they really mean is that they want you to try their new product.  We’re going to try to avoid overheated slogans.  But the plain fact is, right now we live in a world where advertisers know everything about you, and you live in the dark about what they know.  We want to see a world where you are in control.

So, er, Join The . . . um . . . Change The . . . well . . .

Ah, just try Bynamite.  See what advertisers know about you.  Control your own information, and tell them they can’t work with you unless you’re in control.

privacy and stupidity

Privacy by Alan Cleaver

Yet another tech observer claims that “no one cares about privacy anymore.” Personally, I think privacy is a lie – a giant red herring to distract people from the real issues.  But these strident declarations that “no one cares” are self-evidently untrue.  Just think about it:  the fact that the article is written at all means that people care.  You don’t see declarations that “no one cares about podiatry” – because foot medicine really is a topic that interests very few people.

Let’s examine the author’s “proof” that no one cares about privacy –

Successful social networks like Facebook show that people are willing to exchange privacy for free services. This is wrong for two reasons:

First, people are willing to exchange money for services, it happens literally all the time, and obviously it doesn’t mean that no one cares about money.  In fact, people care about money precisely because it can be exchanged for valuable goods.

Second, none of the services in question are explicit about the privacy proposition.  You don’t see anyone saying, “Hey, we’ll give you this great free service, and you give us your personal information, which we’ll sell and use anywhere we want, potentially causing you embarrassment and harm.”  Instead, they say, “Hey, we’ll give you this great free service (and don’t worry, your information is safe with us).”  The fact that people are willing to believe that second statement doesn’t show that people don’t care about privacy, it shows that people are easily fooled.

Less privacy leads to a more virtuous society. This is an attempt to provide a reason that no one should care about privacy; it’s not in any way support that no one does care.  Once again, the statement itself disproves the author’s point:  you wouldn’t need to give reasons to give something up if no one cared about that thing. And more importantly, less freedom would lead to a more virtuous society (in at least some people’s minds), but that obviously doesn’t mean that we should give up freedom for virtue.

The younger generation doesn’t care about privacy, so you shouldn’t either. Oh man, where should I start with this?  The younger generation doesn’t care about a lot of things when they’re young.  And they change their minds about a lot of things as they get older.  And whether or not they ever change their minds, the older generation doesn’t choose what to care about based on what the younger generation thinks (other than oldsters who are desperately trying to cling to youth by emulating the young).

And finally, the younger generation has different notions of privacy, which they care an awful lot about.  Sure they’ll post a drunken party picture for “the world” to see.  But did they want their mom to see it?  Ask any teen if they want privacy from their parents; you’ll find out that teens care deeply about privacy.  That desire for privacy is as strong as any you’ll see, and it doesn’t go away – it evolves from a concern about parents into a concern about employers, colleagues, the government, the spouses and children.

Look, it’s stupid to argue about whether people care about privacy (I’m including myself in that stupidity), and not just because the existence of the argument itself proves that people care, and not just because privacy is a lie anyway.  Why argue when you can look at actual scientific research rather than bald assertions?