March 16th, 2012

It's Not All About You: What Privacy Advocates Don't Get About Data Tracking on the Web

By Alexander Furnas

Jonathan Zittrain noted last summer, “If what you are getting online is for free, you are not the customer, you are the product.” This is just a fact: The Internet of free platforms, free services and free content is wholly subsidized by targeted advertising, the efficacy (and thus profitability) of which relies on collecting and mining user data. We experience this commodification of our attention everyday in virtually everything we do online, whether it’s searching, checking email, using Facebook or reading The Atlantic Technology section on this site. That is to say, right now you are a product.

Most of us, myself included, have not come to terms with what it means to “be the product.” In searching for a framework to make sense of this new dynamic, often we rely on well established pre-digital notions of privacy. The privacy discourse frames the issue in an ego-centric manner, as a bargain between consumers and companies: the company will know x, y and z about me and in exchange I get free email, good recommendations, and a plethora of convenient services. But the bargain that we are making is a collective one, and the costs will be felt at a societal scale. When we think in terms of power, it is clear we are getting a raw deal: we grant private entities—with no interest in the public good and no public accountability—greater powers of persuasion than anyone has ever had before and in exchange we get free email.

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