About Big Tech And Privacy

About Big Tech And Privacy

There’s hardly a word you hear more from big tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google than “privacy” these days. For adblocker and privacy-focused browser provider Ghostery, however, what they mean when they say privacy is not what you mean when you use that word.

“They’re all redefining privacy to their own advantage in many ways,” Ghostery CEO Jean-Paul Schmetz recently told me on a TechFirst podcast.

“But obviously I think privacy should be defined from the perspective of the user, right … that’s the only perspective that actually counts.”

For example, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency defines privacy as companies not sharing data they’ve collected about you with other companies without your permission…not companies collecting data about you, period. Google’s often-delayed discontinuation of the third-party cookie (just delayed again, recently) will prevent cross-site tracking, which is good for privacy, but doesn’t hurt Google at all because Google has a first-party relationship with you. And Facebook’s increasingly detailed privacy settings outline in excruciating detail who (besides Facebook) can see everything about you, but don’t protect you from the big social network you give everything to at all.

So even with all the talk, talk, talk…we’re all still naked in the dark online, at least when it comes to our personal data and digital behavior.

“Some data points are leaked about every American 750 times a day, and Europeans are at … 360 times a day,” says Schmetz.

In other words, the lumbering giant of legislation, GDPR, which has forced more mouse clicks (to accept or decline cookies) than any other law in history, has only succeeded in halving Europe’s privacy exposure.

The interesting thing, according to Schmetz, is that all this data collection, done in the name of making ads more relevant and effective, doesn’t actually accomplish its task.

“I don’t think we would lose so much to advertising or machine learning if people would collect data in a way that doesn’t automatically reveal the lives of their users,” says Schmetz. “It’s really possible to do that. We’ve proven it many times, you know, academically, etc. that it’s feasible. It just doesn’t get done because there’s no reason to do it. Neither users nor authorities or anyone else is actually pushing in that direction.”

There is evidence that publishers, especially news outlets, can earn more when they leave out layers of adtech targeting (each of which takes their share of revenue) and simply enable contextual ads, which do not require personal information. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, for example, cites a Norwegian news agency that quadrupled revenue for contextual ads versus tracking-based ads within 12 months, and a Dutch publisher that increased revenue by 149%.

And Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which is still in development and not in wide release, is actually a technology intended to enable targeting data to be kept on the device so that relevant ads can be shown to the right people without taking their data, and disclose their data. , or compromise their identity.

However, it’s not clear that very specific small brands can use content targeting sufficiently to reach niche audiences…although publishers are doing better.

Regardless, Schmetz says that Google is actually moving to break tools that improve privacy by changing how extensions in the Chrome browser can work.

“They have a lot of different policies, but the one you address regarding anti-tracking basically tells us that you can block a request, but you can’t change it,” says Schmetz. “But if you can just block … the site doesn’t work anymore. And you can’t remove identifiers like we do at Ghostery to say like, ‘Look, the web is working the way it’s supposed to, it’s just that the IDs yours don’t come through.”

Translation: The Ghostery extension on Chrome cannot change data that exits the browser that would give a website your personal information. The extension might just block it, meaning a website you want to use won’t work.

It’s understandable that Google has concerns: an extension that can read and modify data that your browser sends and receives could, in the wrong hands, be a great tool for extracting money from banks or siphoning crypto from users’ wallets.

Still, Schmetz has a point:

“The truth of the matter is that Google has become a monopoly on browsing, because you know Edge is also based on Chromium,” he says. “Firefox is not as strong as it used to be and gets all its revenue from Google. And Google felt that they can now push the extension ecosystem.”

It’s something that Europe’s new Digital Markets Act could address, given that Google has dominant power in several areas: search, email, browsers and more. The DMA can force divestment, and that’s a potential challenge for Google over the next few years. Apple is not immune: By owning the iPhone and iOS and the App Store, it controls what happens on the platform and who has access to it.

Big tech in general – Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft as well as Google and Apple – may face similar problems, many of which come back to data.

Data is a wonderful thing, but it has its challenges, says Schmetz.

“The datasets that are being built are a bit of 21st century nuclear waste, right? Like… nuclear power is great but it has this problem of waste, and the web and machine learning is great but it has this waste of all this data that’s been collected in and really shouldn’t be there.”

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