Taking a lead on privacy??

Two related stories about privacy and tracking are doing the rounds at the moment: both show the problems that companies are having in taking any sort of lead on privacy.

The first is about Apple, and the much discussed recent upgrade to their iOS, the operating system for the iPhone and iPad. There’s been a huge amount said about the problems with the mapping system (and geo-location is of course a huge privacy issue – as I’ve discussed before) but now there’s an increasing buzz about their newly introduced tracking controls. Apple, for the first time, have provided users with the option to ‘limit ad tracking’ – though as noted in a number of stories, including this one from Business Insider, that option is hidden away, not in the vaunted ‘Privacy’ tab, but under a convoluted set of menus (first ‘General’ settings, then ‘About’, then scroll down to the bottom to find ‘Advertising’, then click ‘Limit Ad Tracking’). Not easy to find, as even the techie and privacy geeks that I converse with on twitter have found.

This of course raises a lot of issues – it’s great to have the feature, but the opposite to have it hidden away where only the geeks and the paranoid will find it. It looks as though the people at Apple have been thinking hard about this, and working hard at this, and have come up with an interesting (and perhaps effective – but more on that below) solution, but then been told by someone, somewhere, that they should hide it for fear of upsetting the advertisers. I’d love to know the inside story on this – but Apple are rarely quite as open about their internal discussions as they could be.

There’s a conflict of motivations, of course. On the one hand, Apple wants to make customers happy, and there is increasing evidence that customers don’t want to be tracked – most recently this excellent paper from Hoofnagle, Urban and Li, appropriately entitled “Privacy and Modern Advertising: Most US Internet Users Want ‘Do Not Track’ to Stop Collection of Data about their Online Activities”. On the other hand, Apple don’t want to annoy the advertisers – particularly when the market for mobile is getting increasingly competitive. And the advertisers seem to be on a knife edge at the moment, very touchy indeed, as the latest spats over the ‘Do Not Track’ initiative have shown.

That’s the second story doing the rounds at the moment: the increasing acrimony and seemingly bitter conflict over Do Not Track. It’s a multi-dimensional spat, but seems to have been triggered by Microsoft’s plan to make do not track ‘on’ by default – something that the advertising industry are up in arms about. The ‘Digital Advertising Alliance’ issued a statement effectively saying they would simply ignore Microsoft’s system and track anyway – which led to privacy advocates suggesting that the advertisers wanted to kill the whole Do Not Track initiative. This is Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy:

“The DAA is trying to kill off Do Not Track.  Its announcement today to punish Microsoft for putting consumers first is an extreme measure designed to strong-arm companies that care about privacy.”

Chester and others saying similar things may be right – and it makes people like me wonder if the whole problem is that the ‘Do Not Track’ initiative was never really intended to work, but was just supposed to make people think that their privacy was protected. If it actually got some teeth – and setting it to a default ‘on’ position would be the first way to give it teeth – then the industry wouldn’t want it to exist. There are other huge issues with Do Not Track anyway. As the title of the Hoofnagle, Urban and Li report suggested, people think ‘Do not track’ means they won’t be tracked – that their data won’t be collected at all – while the industry seems to think what really matters to people is that they aren’t targeted – i.e. their data is still collected, and they’re still tracked and profiled, but that tracking isn’t used to send advertisements to them. For me, that at least is completely clear. Do Not Track should mean no tracking. Blocking data collection is more important than stopping targetting – because once the data is collected, once the profiles are made, they’re available for misuse later down the line.

That, far deeper point, is still not being discussed sufficiently. The battle is at a more superficial level – but it’s still an important battle. Who matters more, the consumers or the advertisers? Advertisers would have us believe that by stopping behavioural targetting we will break the whole economic basis of the internet – but that is based on all kinds of assumptions and presumptions, as Sarah A Downey pointed out in this piece for TechCrunch “The Free Internet Will Be Just Fine With Do Not Track. Here’s Why.” At the recent Amsterdam Privacy Conference, Simon Davies, one of the founders of Privacy International, made the bold suggestion that the behavioural targetting industry should simply be banned – and there is something behind his argument. Right now, the industry is not doing much to improve its image: seeming to undermine the whole nature of Do Not Track does not make them look good.

There’s another spectre that the industry might have to face: the European Union is getting ready to act, and when they act, they tend to do things without a great deal of subtlety, as the fuss around the Cookie Directive has shown. If the advertisers want to avoid heavy-handed legislation, they should beware: ‘Steelie’ Neelie Kroes is getting impatient. As reported in The Register, if they don’t stop their squabbling tactics over Do Not Track, she’s going to call in the politicians….

Someone, somewhere, has to take a lead on privacy. Apple had the chance, and to a great extent blew it, by hiding their tracking controls where the sun doesn’t shine. Microsoft seems to be making an attempt too, but will they hold their nerve in the face of huge pressure from the advertising industry – and even if they do, will their lead be undermined by the tactics of the advertising industry? If no-one takes that lead, no-one takes that initiative, the EU will take their kid gloves off… and then we’re all likely to be losers, consumers and advertisers alike….

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