April 13, 2009

For any Google/advertising paranoiacs out there, you might want to click on the “opt out” link at Google’s advertising privacy page. If you’re extra-paranoid (i.e., even worse than me), you can install Google’s privacy plugin for your browser. I know this is a random post, but after my earlier comments, I have to give Google significant credit for making this so easy.

UPDATE 4/19/09: Here’s an even better global advertising opt-out link that I highly recommend!


On the Recent Facebook News
February 18, 2009

I don’t have anything really new to say yet, other than that it’s really good all around. In the end Facebook backed down, and now everyone’s aware of Facebook’s privacy policy and everyone’s thinking about the value of their personal data. I still see the notion of privacy changing irrevocably as an effect of these technologies, but this gives me hope that ordinary people will have at least some input into whatever comes next.

In Defense of Twitter
February 10, 2009

image from twitter.com

image from twitter.com

Andrew Sullivan recently linked to some bloggers who don’t like Twitter. Now, Twitter is a social networking platform, but, unlike Google and Facebook, I have no problem with Twitter, so I am going to defend it here.


Final thoughts on Google and Facebook
January 29, 2009


I’ve been thinking about the comments I received to my Google and Facebook posts, as well as some related posts and articles (the article’s worth reading, btw) by other people from the last few days. I want to make one more point about this privacy stuff, and then move on for a while.

That point is that it’s too late to debate these privacy issues anymore. The ability of companies like Google, Facebook, and your Internet Sevice Provider (e.g. Comcast or Charter) to harvest our personal information is inherent in the technology of the Internet, since everything we consume is routed through their computers. Now that the Internet protocols we all use are firmly established, nothing short of massively expensive privacy legislation can change this fact, and there’s no support for such legislation. This means that technology has already changed the underlying reality of privacy, but I don’t think the general understanding of privacy has changed yet to reflect the new reality. So the rest of this post is going to be my attempt to identify what this new reality is, and how to adapt to it.

The general understanding of privacy is that our thoughts are completely private, and our actions can be either private or public. Usually, we have discretion here, so we can choose whether we want a specific action to be public or private (by performing them in a public space or by staying within our private property, for example). Reasons abound for wanting to keep actions private: our private actions could be embarrassing or illegal, or they could contradict the image of ourselves we want to present to the world, or they could be special moments we want to keep special by only sharing with our significant others or a few close friends, or they could simply be attempts to hold on to a distinct identity separate from our environment. For all these reasons, people act differently in private and in public, and the freedom to have a private life is one of the most powerful freedoms we enjoy. I remember hearing interviews with survivors of 20th century totalitarian regimes, and they uniformly said that the most oppressive part of their experience was not the brutality or the propaganda, but the lack of privacy.

As we move our lives online, however, the stark boundaries between the private and the public have completely dissolved (or dissolved further; it was not ever really that simple in the first place). Technically, everything you do on the Internet or your cell phone is made possible through the property of a third party (your ISP, your cellular service provider, and/or the web server), and most of them keep records or even recordings of it, so all of this activity is public activity. But nobody acts like their online or cell phone activities are public, and the companies who own all the data don’t do anything with it (except occasionally release it to a subpoena or use it for advertising)

Several commenters argued that this is a stable situation, since if any of these companies used the information they have collected, the public outrage would bankrupt them. It’s basically Mututally Assured Destruction for the Internet Era. This may be correct; after all, while living in fear was difficult for most people involved, the Cold War never did turn hot, so M.A.D. has somewhat of a successful track record. But M.A.D. grew out of years of serious research into mathematics, game theory, and psychology, and depended on several assumptions that could have quickly become invalid – it was therefore actually pretty dependent on the specific incentives facing both sides in the Cold War. And, while the incentives for companies in possession of our personal data might be acceptable today, I really have no idea what they will look like in five or ten years.

But, as I said above, it’s too late to fight these changes anymore. That means we have to accept the reality we face today. It’s silly to restrict your present Internet or cell phone usage because of nebulous concerns about the incentives in the future (although you probably don’t want to Google for advice on committing any felonies). This guy wrote a fairly prescient book about these issues a decade ago (h/t RisingTide). He noted many of the same concerns I listed above, and sees a choice about how to proceed, which Wikipedia summarizes:

true privacy will be lost in the “transparent society”; however, we have the choice between one that offers the illusion of privacy by restricting the power of surveillance to authorities, or one that destroys that illusion by offering everyone access (including the ability to watch the watchers).

I think his answer (the latter one, obviously) is kind of ridiculous, and not that appealing. But, I can’t think of any innovative solutions myself, so I guess for the moment I’m going with the former option. Embrace the illusion of privacy, and so don’t think about these issues while you’re online. What you should do, however, is to vote and to lobby for strict oversight of the companies in possession of your personal information. Keep that equilibrium stable.

Google Post
January 22, 2009

EDIT:  this is the perfect post to include some googly eyes!

google eyes


This post was harder for me to write than the Facebook one, in large part because I have a lot more personal affection for Google. They’re a pretty cool company, they have a nice Northern California vibe, they do a lot of good, I like the April Fool’s jokes, I think they’d be a fun place to work, and just yesterday I noticed myself gushing about how awesome is Google Calculator (answer: very awesome). But, as I mentioned in my Facebook post from a few weeks ago, I also have significant reservations about Google. And, with Tuesday’s news about Larry Page delivering the commencement address at Michigan this spring, I think this is a good time to get my thoughts about Google in writing. So, please follow me below the fold for more!


December 21, 2008

I’m going to be deleting my Facebook account pretty soon. Some day I’ll do a long post about why I am not comfortable with Facebook (or Google, by the way), but the short version is that your personal information is worth too much to give away for free to these companies. Here’s an example of what I mean. (EDIT: h/t Denes)