By: Danny Hahn
I want you to think briefly about your average day: how and when you connect to the Internet, how and when you consume media, how often and how long you engage in these activities. Think about all this. Do you have it? What does your answer entail? Now think about how much time you spend NOT engaged in any media consumption or Internet activity. How do the two compare? Chances are the scales are tipping in the direction of media and Internet. Here are some numbers:
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids aged 8-18 spend on average 7.63 hours a day consuming media. If you broaden that to the average American in all age groups and focus primarily on Internet use, a Nielsen release finds that 68 hours a month are devoted to Internet use. That’s well over 2 hours a day just for the average adult. Considering the massive media usage of that 8-18 year old group, it is safe to say their Internet use likely trumps this average by a wide margin. So during these 68 hours a month online, what are Americans doing? Well, they are visiting websites, and a lot of them: nearly 2,700 websites at an average of 57 seconds spent on each page. And that’s just the average.
What these numbers principally demonstrate is that people, and younger generations in particular, are connected, and not just passively: it’s laced into every part of their day. So what does all this have to do with privacy? Well consider the browsing activity of the average person in the above data; they visit a ton of sites a month (thousands on average), which leaves a pretty big trail of data for web browsers, websites, and data miners to scoop up. Looking at the top ten visited sites, the usual suspects are expectedly present: Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, YouTube, and Wikipedia all make the short list, the first three of which (Google, Facebook, and Yahoo!) alone account for 16% of those 68 hours a month spent online.
These big three, Facebook/Google being the primary focus, are subject to the majority of scrutiny over privacy issues, and rightfully so considering the mass amount of data these services build up. It is common knowledge that Google keeps track of history, searches, frequency of visits, etc. of users in order to better cater their services and better fit their ads to users. What you may not consider is the scope of information that Google may take in about your internet habits. Amongst the scores of data collected are: every email you’ve ever sent from a Gmail account, records of every conversation you’ve had on Google Voice, every single text message from Google Chat, every Google Alert and Calendar date you’ve ever set, and all of your activity on Google+ (probably not much). All of this is of course in addition to every Google search, browsing history, and so on mentioned above. Facebook is no exception, keeping track of photos, page likes, About Me info, status updates, comments, and virtually any other information that you may have ever posted in a frenzied fit of narcissism, whether or not you have deleted it (this includes de-friends and deleted photos).
With such a massive amount of personal data pouring out everyday into the servers of companies like Google and Facebook, it comes as no surprise that privacy and data management issues have begun to arise since the emergence of Web 2.0 and social media. For advertisers, this data is a Godsend. It literally hands over a detailed profile of constituents across varied markets, replete with psychographic and demographic data. What more could you ask for? This dream doesn’t carry over to those on the other side, those whose information is being bartered, and increasingly we have seen more and more action taken on these issues. In the last few years, the FCC has shown efforts to enact “Do Not Track” legislation that would essentially cut the trail cold on users’ browsing history and activities. Anyone who did not wish to have their information harvested could “opt out” by simply choosing the option to not be tracked. However, we have yet to see any of these proposals turn into real legislation, and thus it remains a point of conversation as the FCC further explores how to curb data privacy issues.
Another way that the FCC has attempted to tackle the issue is by focusing not on the advertisers, but on those who move the data, the “data brokers” so to speak. These companies are hardly household names: Choicepoint and LexisNexis are two of the larger examples; but while they aren’t household names, the data they sell comes from big name companies, and they sell it to big name advertisers. These middle men have come under scrutiny from the FCC in a recent bid to create a “privacy by design” system in which users have much more liberating control over what information they share and do not share, and how internet “cookies” operate on their devices. As the focus of blame has shifted from demonizing advertisers towards finding a middle ground in what is proving to be an incredibly complex issue, this route is one that has shown viability.
Completely eradicating the trail of data left by users is not in anyone’s best interest. Most everyone understands that advertising is essential to the continued operation of many services that are offered free or at a discounted price, and this is especially true on the web, where advertising often accounts for 100% of the revenue a website pulls in. What the FCC is pushing for, and what the media at large fears have overlapping similarities. Transparency, consistency, privacy by design… All of these ideas lead towards a solution that many hope for, a compromise that allows users to control their data without being tricked into default privacy settings, losing their saved settings in an update, or not really ever deleting content on Facebook even though they can’t see it.
This is the core of privacy issues: control. While Google and Facebook may tout enhanced privacy measures and shove their privacy policies at consumers every chance they get, the problem is that the user is still ultimately at the mercy of these companies. What they do and do not do with your data is only marginally influenced by the wishes of the user. While it is of course critical that advertisers continue to support Internet content and services, how that personal data is brokered should better involve the input of the user. Let the user control what they share, and strive to stick firmly to an ethical code of conduct for privacy issues, or as Google would say in their de facto company motto: “Don’t be evil.”