how to win the cookie wars

You might think you know everything you need to know about “cookies,” but have you ever thought about what it would take to make them work for consumers rather than advertisers?

In the simplest terms, cookies are tiny pieces of information that enable websites to remember something about a web browser. Some people think that cookies are evil, though the adverting industry wants you to think of them more like a friendly waitress that knows what you want.  Some people just hate advertising and want to block anything that enables any kind of ad.

At Bynamite, we don’t hate advertising – we just think that much of the Internet has become a giant battleground over consumer data, and the consumers have no voice in this war.  We have watched advertisers, websites, and marketplaces battle over the cookie, each one claiming that they own the data and should get the economic benefit from that data.  But whose data is this, doesn’t it really all come from the consumers? What would have to happen to make the Internet treat consumers as the true masters of their own information?

We don’t think the answer is to hide from advertisers.  Millions of people use tools like AdBlock, NoScript, BetterPrivacy, Ghostery and TACO to prevent seeing online ads and block advertisers from personalizing ads. We think these are great tools, but they are only playing defense in a battle that requires offense to win.

Consumers can only compete by uniting in a give-and-take with the advertising world.  So you have cookies? Use them for you, not just for what they want.  Bynamite uses cookies and tracks online purchases, but does so in a way that gives you more control over the information that advertisers have about you.  We only work with advertising systems that give consumers transparency and control, and we opt you out of over a hundred systems that don’t allow you to easily see and change the information that they have about you.  We’re trying to make a fair trade that will bring some balance to the Internet advertising world, so that consumer interests are at least as powerful as advertiser decisions.

We’re interested in changing the landscape for everyone, not just for sophisticated users who manage their cookies and install blocking tools.  The more people who use Bynamite, the more advertisers will want to change their systems to give consumers more transparency and control – and even people who don’t use Bynamite will benefit from that.

how do you know who cares?

Low participation in Quit Facebook Day has led some to claim that “no one really cares” about privacy – the argument seems to be that since Facebook didn’t lose many accounts, that must mean that people don’t care. The author asserts:"I think I don't care" by VanessaO

Go ahead. Name me one company of a significant size whose business suffered due to its treatment of people’s private data.  Unless I’m missing something, you can’t. . . . In the online world, I can’t name a single significant company that had a problem. They pay lip service to being concerned about privacy, but, in fact, a small number of verbal people whine, but very few leave. If a site is useful, most people (not you, the smart readers of this blog, but average everyday people) vaguely wonder about what happened, but won’t give up their site.

Never mind that the claim is transparently self-serving and ignorant of actual research, let’s try to repeat the same argument in other contexts.

No one really cares about poisonous chemicals in their food.  I can’t think of a single company that failed due to pesticide use. Never mind the $23 billion in organic food sales in the U.S.

No one really cares about security flaws in operating systems or web browsers.  I can’t think of a single company that failed due to computer security issues.  Never mind the $16 billion in security software sales.

No one really cares about paying taxes.  I can’t think of a single government that failed due to tax assessment and collection.  Never mind that whole taxation without representation flap a few hundred years ago.

This is silly.  The question of whether or not people care about something is not answered by asking whether businesses fail when they don’t provide that something.  A better answer can be found in asking whether businesses can be formed around providing that something.

Facebook is not the problem – it's too easy to fix!

I’ve had mixed feelings about the recent Facebook controversies.  In case you missed it, many people are saying that Facebook has gone rogue – led by amoral management, they’ve pushed radical transparency upon unwilling users, hiding their moves behind a everchanging array of bewildering settings.

I’m glad to see so many people beginning to grapple with the fact that they’ve given their information away to services that are too hard to control.

But it would be a mistake to think that Facebook is the problem.  For one thing, the problem that Facebook poses here is too easy to fix.  On May 7, I told a group of people at PrivacyCamp that Bynamite could give them a “one button” solution to fix Facebook privacy.

The Friends Only ButtonTwelve days later, we’ve launched The One Button Rule.  The “Friends Only” button automatically changes all your settings to Friends Only, and monitors those settings to make sure that Facebook doesn’t change them back.  There are several other solutions available as well – of course I think that ours is the easiest and most effective (we’re the only ones that automatically monitor and fix all settings), but go ahead and try them all and decide for yourself.

My point isn’t that the Friends Only button is the best; my point is that once people got motivated, it took less than a couple of weeks to see many solutions appear.  No matter how they try, Facebook really can’t deny people what we want – if people really want something, solutions will be made on the market to give it.  Even Facebook sees the writing on the wall at this point, promising that they’ll make privacy simple.

You may or may not trust them, given their history.  Nevertheless, the new solutions will win out and force Facebook to do the right thing.

But these easy fixes are only addressing the tip of the iceberg.  Facebook is only the most visible service that constantly collects and uses your information in ways you don’t understand and can’t control.  The mass of this iceberg is still under water, and we are all still heading towards it.  This is a hard problem to see, to understand, and to explain – and that’s our larger mission.  Bynamite is still in rough beta, but in a few weeks we’ll launch a new version and we’ll have a lot more to say.

privacy law: clowns to the left, jokers to the right

Lawmakers have introduced new privacy legislation that apparently no one likes.  Technology and media companies complain that the legislation could devastate the Internet as we know it.  Privacy advocates rant about the “Orwellian” misdirection they see in the proposal.

I think it can be a great sign when everybody’s unhappy with legislation like this.  It might mean that the lawmakers aren’t in anybody’s pocket – they might actually be trying to make something that works for the people, rather than trying to just make campaign money or pander for votes.

The government, the industry, and the advocates all say they want to help me.  The problem is that none of these people have a vested interest in making it easy for me:  the government is about bureaucracy rather than ease of use, the industry makes more money when I’m confused, and the advocates prefer being right to making me happy.

Personally, I’m not waiting for the law to protect my interests, and I’m not just going to trust the industry, and I’m not getting as nutty as the advocates.  I understand that technology is often used in ways I don’t like, but I also know that I can use technology to get what I want.  I want to know what advertisers know about me, I want to be able to see that data and control it.

I want it to be easy, even kinda fun.  That’s the kind of solution I want to find – let the clowns and jokers at the extremes argue with each other, there’s a great solution in the middle that would work for the rest of us.

privacy is God

Is God Dead?In April 1966, Time Magazine published the most controversial magazine cover of all time.  This was back when magazines really mattered, they were our national interpreters of news and culture.  As the most popular news weekly in America, Time mattered most of all.  The cover story asked, “Is God Dead?

The question had already been asked and answered for thousands of years.  But Time’s report came in the middle of America’s cultural revolution, when many social norms were being revisited and overthrown.  The new theologians claimed, “ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead.”

Four months later, the controversy rose to another level on John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”  Lennon later explained that he meant that the Beatles had more influence on young people than religion.  He was certainly right in the one measure that matters most to media observers:  the Beatles sold more music than anybody.

Is privacy like God? Not in the sense of blasphemous comparison, but in the similarly unending debate, which seems to be reaching a crescendo during today’s Internet revolution.  It has become fashionable to proclaim that “privacy is dead.”  Apparently, Facebook’s CEO doesn’t believe in privacy.  Maybe Facebook is actually quite similar to the Beatles, in terms of holding a pivotal place in a cultural revolution to new social norms.

But before we go too far with this comparison, let’s look at what the answer Time’s question turned out to be.  Decades after the countercultural peak, God is as alive as he ever was – which is only to say that there are believers and nonbelievers, and declarations by either side don’t end the argument.  Even death doesn’t end the argument, as Nietzsche, Lennon, or the guy who wrote the Time story would agree, if they were alive to do so.

Facebook’s 400 million users is pretty impressive, but the Bible has that beat by a few billion.  Lennon’s statement may have heralded the cultural primacy of popular music, but it didn’t come close to marking the death of God.  All the “smart money” in Hollywood can think that God is dead, but it didn’t stop Mel Gibson from making $300 million on his belief otherwise. Similarly, I think the phrase “privacy is dead” simply declares the ascendancy of a certain kind of media, and it doesn’t mean that the old desires and expectations will ever die.

why doesn't everyone use AdBlock?

AdBlock allows people to surf the web without seeing advertising, and in doing so transforms the Web from a noisy, neon-lit advertising hell into a serene, minimalist content paradise.  It works so well, and has become so popular, that I’ve started to wonder why everyone doesn’t already use it.  What are the reasons AdBlock isn’t universally popular?  Here are the potential reasons I’ve considered:

1)  It’s too complicated. AdBlock is a bit of software that works with web browsers, variously called an extension, add-on, or plug-in.  Until Chrome launched its extensions system, AdBlock was only available for Firefox.  So “it’s complicated” means that AdBlock is a scary software installation on a non-mainstream web browser.

That might have been a good argument in 2007, when Firefox had less than 15% market share and Chrome didn’t exist.  AdBlock claimed around 2.5 million users that year.  But now Firefox and Chrome have 30% market share.  AdBlock for Firefox has had over 75 million downloads, with 10 million daily users.  A similar AdBlock is already the most popular extension in Chrome’s much newer extensions list.  With those kinds of numbers, it’s hard to claim AdBlock is too complicated to use.

2)  It’s not fair. Websites that run on advertising make less money in a world with AdBlock.  If everyone used AdBlock, these websites would be financially devastated.  Using AdBlock makes sense in the short run, but is a long-term loser for users who want free content.

Could it be that people’s innate sense of economic fairness prevents AdBlock adoption?  I’d like to think that’s true, but we don’t have to look very far to find evidence otherwise.  The use of online file sharing certainly hasn’t been impeded much by “fairness” arguments, and users don’t seem to give much regard to the consequences.

3)  Banner blindness is better. People are remarkably effective at simply not seeing ads.  This “banner blindness” requires no installation and is absolutely free.

No doubt banner blindness is the best current alternative to AdBlock.  The price is the same (free), and no particular browser or installation is required.  But how long will this status remain?  Will all mainstream browsers support extensions, and make installation as easy as visiting a web page?  Those who follow browser development regard the answers as obvious:  it’s only going to get easier to use AdBlock, and that will make banner blindness comparatively less attractive.

4)  People actually want ads. Advertisers would like this to be true, so fervently that it sometimes seems they have convinced themselves that it is.

Here’s the part that’s true:  people want to find out about things they like, people like getting discounts and early access to good products and services, people like to save time as well as money.  Does this mean that people actually want ads so much that they won’t use AdBlock?  Probably not.  Is there anyone who won’t use TiVo because they’d rather be forced to watch commercials on TV?

5)  No one knows about it yet. Sure, some people use AdBlock, but it’s no Twitter, is it?  Actually, in terms of actual usage, AdBlock and Twitter are pretty close.  But I’ll bet you’ve heard about Twitter about a hundred times more in the past couple of years than you’ve heard of AdBlock.  Why is that?

Well, the Twitter story is good for just about everyone who touches it:  Good for Twitter, its investors, the press, marketers, advertisers, and users.  The AdBlock story, in contrast, is bad for everybody.  It’s an open source project, so there’s no company to invest in or promote.  The press doesn’t like the story, it seems at once too techie (“add-ons”?) and too simple (“no one likes ads, duh”).  Marketers and advertisers have absolutely no interest in letting anyone hear about it.  And even users don’t benefit from the spread of AdBlock – it’s a non-viral, non-social product that works great for users, but also carries a slight taint of being bad for websites.

So AdBlock might be the most popular product that no one wants to talk about.  Still, you have to wonder if there will come a day when everyone is using AdBlock, or something like it.

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.