Ads, Privacy, and Cigarettes

Maciej Ceglowski—who I recently posted about—has posted another transcription of a talk he recently gave, called What Happens Next Will Amaze You. It’s mostly about online advertising and privacy, which may sound boring, but here it isn’t at all:

Bruce Schneier has pointed out we would never agree to carry tracking devices and report all our most intimate conversations if the government made us do it.

But under such a scheme, we would enjoy more legal protections than we have now. By letting ourselves be tracked voluntarily, we forfeit all protection against how that information is used.

Those who control the data gain enormous power over those who don’t. The power is not overt, but implicit in the algorithms they write, the queries they run, and the kind of world they feel entitled to build.

In this world, privacy becomes a luxury good. Mark Zuckerberg buys the four houses around his house in Palo Alto, to keep hidden what the rest of us must share with him. It used to be celebrities and rich people who were the ones denied a private life, now it’s the other way around.

I learned a lot of new things about how ad fraud has driven the ad industry’s obsession with collecting data, hoping to stay a step ahead of the fraudsters by hopefully proving us to be real. Ceglowski proposes that we should introduce a number of new regulations around the Internet, which I normally would oppose, but these make a lot of sense:

There’s a myth in Silicon Valley that any attempt to regulate the Internet will destroy it, or that only software developers can understand the industry.

When I flew over to give this talk, I wasn’t worried about my plane falling out of the sky. Eighty years of effective technical regulation (and massive penalties for fraud) have made commercial aviation the safest form of transportation in the world.

Similarly, when I charged my cell phone this morning, I had confidence that it would not burn down my apartment. I have no idea how electricity works, but sound regulation has kept my appliances from electrocuting me my entire life.

The Internet is no different. Let’s not forget that it was born out of regulation and government funding. Its roots are in military research, publicly funded universities and, for some reason, a particle accelerator. It’s not like we’re going to trample a delicate flower by suddenly regulating what had once been wild and untamed.

The entire thing is well worth a read. Then you can find out why “cigarettes” was in the title.


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