Protecting our personal info is a lifestyle choice many of us aren’t making
“I am currently reading an article titled ‘10 Ways to Keep Sweaty Hands From Holding You Back,’” a man shouts from a toilet cubicle in Apple’s latest iPhone video. The ad is about a new feature in iOS 14 that blocks tracking cookies: bits of code that follow you across the internet so you can be targeted by ads. In the video, people shout aloud private information to highlight what tracking cookies are doing behind the scenes and how ridiculous it is that we accept them.
With the release of iOS 14, the iPhone will ask if you’re happy to be tracked. If you’re not, Apple will block the trackers. This is great for privacy advocates but awful for companies that rely on revenue from ads. As much as Google and Facebook say people like relevant ads when given the choice, most people will almost certainly choose not to be tracked.
This is particularly bad for Facebook. “We’re still trying to understand what these changes will look like and how they will impact us,” Facebook’s chief financial officer, David Wehner, told CNBC last month. During an earnings call, Facebook went further, saying this could hurt its revenue. In a statement to developers, Facebook even said the change may render some services “so ineffective on iOS 14 that it may not make sense to offer” them at all. A report in The Information goes into detail on the effect on Facebook and others. “Apple’s move has gone too far, disproportionately disrupting a vibrant app ecosystem,” one ad company CEO told The Information.
These words keep cropping up: Your privacy is important to us. Your information. Your choice. You’re in charge.
It all sounds good, but there’s a hollowness to the legally prescribed wording. These are messages designed to be dismissed. For most of us, cookie and privacy laws mean more boxes to dismiss while the tracking continues. Facebook’s privacy page, for example, is behind the sign-in. You actually cannot read privately about privacy. On Twitter, when I dig into my ad interests, it gives me the option to “opt out of interest-based advertising.” But when I do so, it tells me the change “won’t remove you from advertisers’ audiences.” I browse the list of topics Twitter thinks I’m interested in (and hence will advertise to me) and notice one is “adverts.” On Instagram, one of my interests is “privacy.” I wonder if there’s much of a business in targeting ads at people who take their online privacy seriously.
Privacy violations are bad in theory but ignorable in practice.
The New York Times takes a defensive tone: “Like other media companies, The Times collects data on its visitors,” it says. It is the argument of a petulant child demanding the inevitable parental comeback: “If all the other media companies jumped off a cliff, would you?” The wording even appears on stories about trackers on websites. While you read about ad trackers, the Times sends your data to Comscore, Google Ads, IterateHQ.
One of the big winners during the coronavirus pandemic has been Zoom, a company that makes an easy-to-use video conferencing tool but plays fast and loose with security and privacy. (Since these issues came to light, Zoom has taken steps to improve the app.) Zoom is successful partly because it is easier to use than the alternatives and partly because people need what it provides enough to overlook the issues. We care about our privacy but not enough to go without seeing our loved ones.
As Zoom’s usage has soared, I’ve noticed a rising irritation on social media, not at Zoom but at those who highlight Zoom’s privacy issues. There is, I sense, a backlash against privacy. Another division in a divided world.
At one end of the spectrum is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and John Perry Barlow and Cory Doctorow sorts, internet thinkers who write about privacy and digital freedoms and who care an awful lot about privacy. There are people who refuse to use services owned by Google or Microsoft, who are not on Facebook, and who read the licenses for the software they use. This is privacy as a lifestyle choice.
In the middle are most of us. Those who want to read an article or use a site and find we have to click “I accept” on a range of cookie warnings and notices not because we do actually accept but because we don’t not accept them enough not to use the service. As much as we are outraged by the trackers, we would still like to read that Times article about all the ways we’re being tracked. And, in our defense, it’s not always entirely clear what it is we’re accepting. As blogger John Gruber points out about the rise of ad trackers, “We, as a society, have implicitly accepted it because we never really noticed it.”
“People invoke their right to privacy when it serves their interests.”
But now, at the other end, are those frustrated by the whole topic. I sense growing exhaustion with privacy. Perhaps some feel hectored or told off. One more thing to be criticized for: We have bad diets, damage the environment, eat too much red meat, and now we don’t look after our privacy enough. I see comments on articles: “Stop whining” and “Don’t use it if you don’t like it.” It is one step away from the rhetoric of Donald Trump, dismissing something he doesn’t like: “fake news.” Perhaps these are bots, deployed on behalf of privacy-defying companies. But when I look at the accounts of those exhausted at being lectured about privacy, they have proper usernames without numbers and were registered years ago. If they are bots, they’ve very good ones.
I have some sympathy. It feels unfair that we should be blamed just by using the web as designed. All we wanted to do was read an article about frogs, and now we’re responsible for the downfall of the internet. What’s more, it’s difficult to map privacy concerns to real-world consequences. Privacy violations are bad in theory but ignorable in practice. Especially when the alternative is not to do the thing you want to. We’ve gotten away with ignoring data misuse because the effects we’ve seen (so far) is that after we buy a new lightbulb, all our ads are lightbulbs. Our sense of what is acceptable has been slowly eroded, not just in the short term but over lifetimes. In The Averaged American, Sarah Igo points out that the introduction of the postcard allowed strangers to read mail in transit, which up until then had been private. At first, people were shocked, but now, on the off chance we get a postcard, it is part of the fabric of life. This is just one of many ways our expectations have been subtly altered. Social Security numbers, fingerprinting, mass instant photography. Things that even privacy advocates have become acclimatized to are invasions of our privacy.
These creeping changes help us forget how important our privacy is and miss that it’s being eroded. It feels strange to say, but privacy is becoming a political topic, caught up in the great culture divide we’re living through: abortion rights, Black Lives Matter, “social justice warriors,” “political correctness,” and now internet privacy all falling on one side. Trump’s ban of TikTok was a rare moment of alignment but seems more like a coincidence than policy: Privacy momentarily became a useful tool in a growing U.S.-China trade war. “Privacy is simply a weapon that comes to hand in social combat,” Louis Menand notes in the New Yorker. “People invoke their right to privacy when it serves their interests.”
What privacy has in common with these other topics, perhaps, is that it requires us to think of our impact on the wider environment, consider how our actions have led us to be unintentionally culpable, and adjust our behavior. Adjusting our behavior just because what we’re doing is bad for the world is a real pain.
And then there is Apple, positioning itself as the privacy and security company. Last year, it banned third-party tracking in apps aimed at children, added Intelligent Tracking Prevention into MacOS to automatically remove trackers, and introduced “Sign in with Apple,” creating anonymous email addresses to limit tracking. Apple is able to do this because the trucks of money keep piling up at Cupertino, very few of which come from ad sales. In theory, its actions improve its products, but I can’t help feeling they’re also a swipe at the income streams of its semi-competitors.
Yet, even they, the richest company on the planet, have felt the pressure from the ad industry. Apple has delayed blocking trackers “to give developers the time they need to make the necessary changes,” the company said in a statement, “and as a result, the requirement to use this tracking permission will go into effect early next year.” It could be that Apple wasn’t prepared for attempts by companies like Facebook to galvanize support from developers. But it could also be that Apple found it needed to give developers more time — to protect its own App Store ecosystem filled with ad-filled apps. In the modern world, everything is tied together, services dependent on each other in a huge recursive loop.
Behind all of this is the reality that ads are the deal we have made. There is no amount of money you can pay to not be tracked by Twitter, Google, and Facebook. If you want to use those services, you have to hand over your data.
There are clever ways around trackers of course. Ad blockers and proxies and specific browsers. My weapon of choice is uBlock Origin, which uses blacklists of domains to block trackers, analytics, and ads (plenty of other similar products exist.) I watch the little number counting all the trackers it’s blocked. Sometimes I try to find sites with the “highest score.” The Huffington Post has 61 blocked. The New York Times has 20. The article you’re reading right now on Medium? Even though there are no ads, uBlock still blocks 14 scripts. But really, ad blockers are Band-aids on the problem. Worse, they are Band-aids that help me while hurting everyone else. If I block ads, I take content without anyone being paid, which means sites need to include even more ads and do even more tracking to make back the money they lost through their ads being blocked.
“Half my advertising spend is wasted,” retail magnate John Wanamaker famously said. “The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Tracking cookies are a rebuttal to this quip. But now, without these analytics, the economics for ads don’t add up. We have dug ourselves into a tracker-filled hole. If there were targeted ads for our present age, they would be selling us ladders and climbing gear.
This perhaps is where the hand-wringing and exhaustion come from, even as the court cases and fines mount up for privacy violations. We are trapped in this world now, our only choices being to accept the status quo or go without.
Apple’s move to block trackers has the potential to break this deadlock — at least for those rich enough to afford Apple’s premium-priced luxury hardware. But there is a longer-term question. Ad blockers haven’t destroyed the industry because they require effort to set up and install. But what will blocking trackers by default mean for the online ecosystems we enjoy using? We don’t like trackers, but do we dislike enough to give up our access to so many free things?