When we were warned about the pitfalls of the lack of privacy by writers like George Orwell in 1984, we made sure that our governments protected our privacy and the right to freedom of expression. We felt that the horror of totalitarian regimes was just a step away, and could only be averted by very strict rules about what governments could and could not do; we devised systems of checks and balances to avoid being dragged into a situation where governments could control our privacy to the most infinite detail. And even though governments keep trying to push through that barrier of privacy, while they remain democracies, they have — so far — failed to do so.
Incidents like the UK riot, or the Patriot Act of 2001, show how quickly citizens wish a quick trade-off between “privacy” and “security” as soon as they feel less safe. So the shadow of totalitarianism is not completely eliminated.
But in the mean time we completely forgot about applying the same measures to corporations.
Internet companies in the 21st century are all about profiling data and selling ads. During the dot-com era, most analysts thought that ads on the Web was a trend that would die a quick death after the bubble burst. Starting one’s own business based on attracting users and then selling ads to them seemed to be a fad that was going away.
Google proved otherwise — by buying the few remaining, struggling web ad companies and deploying their own data mining techniques to profiling data, they created a fantastic business, selling US$42 billions of ads every year. They were soon copied by Microsoft’s own initiatives, then Facebook’s; and even popular video streaming services report plenty of ad revenues, some of which already breaking even. Not to mention mobile advertising, which is growing like crazy as well.
Why the success? The answer is simple: profiling. By very successfully collecting data about consumers — their IP address, their viewing habits, the kind of queries they type on Google and how they refine them — Google (and the others) are able to give marketeers their utopian dream: powerful, personalised profiles, far more detailed than ever was possible to imagine. Instead of targeting “class A” consumers on specialised magazines, marketeers can now simply ask Google to give them a list of all users who drive a BMW (based on the queries they type and their participation on groups and chatrooms for BMW owners) living in a certain city — and they can even pick ads on those sites that the BMW owner subscribes to. So far, this data has been provided anonymously, since Google didn’t know the person’s name behind the keyboard.
Facebook changed all that. By forbidding all kinds of nicknames, anonymous, or pseudonymous accounts, they can sell ads to people with real names. They also know their names and can do extra validation via text messages to users’ mobile phones. Others (like Netlog) soon adopted similar systems. Google, by now requiring user profiles to mandatorily have names from ID cards, is going the same way as the pioneer Facebook, but has a market 30 times the size.
At the same time, Apple has revealed (perhaps not intentionally) that they actually track iPhone’s users constantly via GPS — and since almost all iPhone users have an iTunes account (most often with credit card data), Apple can even be more precise in pinpointing a consumer’s location. As of today, they still don’t have an ad-selling service; but they have a fantastic database worth millions (or billions) and might not resist to sell it to mobile phone users. Imagine what Google will do next, combining Android data from Google Profiles with all the data mining and profiling they already do: they can create exact profiles of everyone connected to the ‘net and tell marketeers where they are and what they’re doing.
Big Brother is not government any more; it’s corporations. Totally unregulated corporations. All the above is forbidden in many countries, but these days, governments are mere puppets in the hands of the industry giants; and even if they decided to shut down those huge profiling databases, what would be the point? Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, they could simply move the data to a location in a country not so strict about what is stored in their databases, and operate from there. Thus it’s not so important where the databases are located.
So in this Brave New World it’s corporations that are totalitarian, not governments. But that’s because we forgot to control them. Is it too late to go back and fix it?