Information Ownership and the Right to be Forgotten

Much ado was made a few weeks ago about the European Union’s judicial determination that individual Europeans have, in broad strokes, a right to be forgotten on the Internet. Google protested, but now must honor requests to remove search results about a person from the E.U. at that person’s request.
Google, for its part, is suggesting passive-aggressive compliance — by following the directive strictly but publicizing that they removed the results and linking to the request to remove them. In other words, by shining an even brighter flashlight on the material intended for removal.
All of this comes back to two important questions:

  1. Who “owns” information about a person?
  2. To what extent can a private person control the release of information about himself?

The first question might appear before U.S. regulators sooner rather than later. The Federal Trade Commission launched an inquiry into data brokers and lawmakers are increasingly skeptical of the breezy privacy practices of these companies. The second question is murkier: Public records are public records, but to what extent does a private enterprise enjoy the right to profit off aggregating and publishing public records? Does the right to free speech mean the right to restrict dissemination of speech if the subject of that speech demands it?
When the E.U.’s decision hit the media wires, the response was predictable. Data brokers argue that it’s better to be served relevant ads than irrelevant ads, so consumers shouldn’t worry about what’s going on behind the curtain (never mind folks who don’t want to be served ads at all). Companies, in general, are increasingly reliant on large-scale data analysis to refine consumer targeting, so giving people the chance to opt out of that targeting directly affects their bottom line.
I believe that my information is my information, and that the only companies entitled to use my information are those I’ve elected to do business with. I’ve never conducted business with a data broker, so the data broker has no right to profit off the sale of information about me that it compiled through surveillance I didn’t authorize and wouldn’t consent to. As such, I support regulation that eliminates or tightly regulates consumer data-sharing among companies, as well as transparency and strong limits about what kinds of information can be collected and the consumer’s right to amendment or deletion.
The question of the right to be forgotten is more intriguing. Let’s say Bob writes a nasty blog post about me. Google indexes it and serves it up when someone searches for my name. What is to be done? Bob may be entitled to say nasty things, provided it doesn’t cross the line into defamation, but why should Google have a right to make that information easily discoverable? Don’t I have the right to have negative material affecting my reputation more difficult to discover? Google’s argument is a variation on the meme that “information wants to be free.” Bollocks. Google makes money on selling search results, so it doesn’t want to harm its core business, principle be damned. Bob can write what he wants to write, but Google has no First Amendment right to make that information discoverable, such that it trumps my right to avoid inappropriate public disapprobation.
It may be true that there’s no such thing as privacy in the digital age, but there’s something to be said about the effective privacy that comes from information obscurity. Bob publishing mean things about me is what it is, but I have a vested interest in not making Bob’s vitriol the first thing that pops up on search results about me. Making some things more difficult to casually uncover is probably a reasonable middle ground between victim’s rights and free-speech rights. Certainly, Google’s perspective that it’s entitled to link everything/everywhere is much more philosophically controversial than its defenders care to admit.
In any case: There’s a trend afoot to turn consumer data into a commodity. Fine. Then let’s regulate the data brokers and companies like Facebook and Google as if they’re utilities.

Tech Industry 2015

Blogger Charlie Stross makes some interesting five-year predictions for the tech industry. The short version is that he senses a certain blood-in-the-water mentality among the major tech players because the future of computing rests not with hardware or software, per se, but rather in consumer devices that seamlessly connect to a cloud for distributed data and applications. The world of desktop computers with locally installed software that have occasional use of the Internet — a paradigm dominant since the early 1990s — is about to be radically upended.

He seems to suggest that HP’s recent Palm bid, and Microsoft’s dropping of the Courier tablet project, and Apple’s Fort-Knox security practices, and Google’s cloud focus, and the leapfrogging in wireless infrastructure in the U.S., all point in one direction: Hardware will become a secondary, generic, low-margin commodity even as applications that reside on a single hard drive lose market share and visibility. In Stross’s view, as I take it, the future lies with Apple’s business model of a walled-off garden of propriety software and strictly regulated third-party applications, which users access seamlessly through devices that sync with centralized servers that perform OS upgrades, store data and configuration settings, and push subscribed applications directly to the user.

To some degree, I agree that Stross’s hypothetical has potential. There is an unambiguous drive toward centralization and coordination of the user experience. Cloud computing has a real benefit to people who move from place to place, and having a trusted vendor coordinate access and security rights is useful.

That said, I question (in a constructive sense only) his overall conclusion, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Many people have information that they refuse to push into the publicly accessible ecosphere. Ever wonder what people do with the billions of dollars each year they download in porn?  Hint: It’s not going on a discoverable cloud server, nor will trillions of pirated MP3s. As long as people desire privacy for critical files, including most importantly pirated media files, local storage will be essential, and as long as local storage is essential, the role of the cloud (although perhaps strong) will not “kill” hardware. The RIAA and the Apple App Store actually work against widespread public adoption of cloud storage: Why risk a lawsuit and the risk of peeking by the vendor or law enforcement, or a vendor making your decisions for you about which applications and data you are allowed to have, when local storage is faster/cheaper/more secure?
  2. High-end computer gaming — just try it on an Atom processor.  Have *you* experienced Barrens chat on a netbook?  Likewise with apps that require large datasets, like some statistics packages. And don’t get me started on high-end video and image editing, or publication design.  Tablet or netbooks have their obvious benefits, but they just aren’t capable, in current form, of replacing a full-strength desktop/laptop system, and until they do, these new devices may serve a niche role in the lives of those who own them, but they will compliment, not displace, the current computing paradigm.
  3. A backlash may be brewing on privacy. As Facebook and Twitter grow, so also does a sense that perhaps we are “too connected.” I suspect that there is an upper limit to how much personal information — including sensitive data — we are willing to push into the cloud, and as society matures about social-media concepts, my gut says we will err on less sharing than today, rather than more. The initial rejection of Google Buzz was significant, as is ongoing user (and Congressional!) scrutiny of Facebook’s shifting privacy standards. We may be willing to share information early on, before we are aware of the drawbacks, but eventually we will pull back from the brink.
  4. Sometimes some files and applications are too important to trust that always-on network connectivity will be an option. Too many places still have too sporadic access to data services. Data access is also so slow that syncing and using a massive filesystem remotely using Wifi or 3G is prohibitive: If I want to browse for a song in my 30 GB music library, am I really going to wait for the library to stream, or to wait as the file cache reloads?  Or will I sync my Blackberry music library via USB every couple of months, and call it good?  I’m not sure that widespread, high-quality, high-speed wireless access will be ubiquitous enough to support a mobile-device/cloud-access model for at least a decade. We just aren’t where we need to be with open-access infrastructure.
  5. Users like consistency. As long as I have a radically difference experience working on my laptop with local data versus using a Web app for cloud data versus using my Blackberry for yet other data, I’m going to be in a “roll your own” environment that speaks against a desire to look to a single vendor’s all-in-one solution as my default go-to strategy. I suspect savvy users will act similarly. I will never buy an iPhone or an iPad because I refuse to be locked into Apple’s proprietary model, nor do I put anything but the bare minimum into Google’s “free” services.  Instead, I have my laptop and a long-running contract with a professional hosting company. I have my own private browser-accessible cloud (I use Gladinet software to sync critical files real-time with a protected file tree on my hosted account), my own IMAP server that won’t be shut unless I shut it down, my own public FTP directory on my private server for world-sharing sharing files (and occasionally, hosting them for others), and my own WordPress blog that won’t be shut down because a user complains about content. Everything I need, I have on my own, at little cost and hassle, and customized to my exact preferences.  Although most users aren’t going to go to the same level as I do, enough will, I suspect, especially when the cost of the walled garden is a nickle here and a dime there, every day of the week.
  6. Hubris is a powerful roadblock.  Yes, Apple’s recent strategic moves are suggestive. But what happens when Apple’s market share is eroded overnight by something new and disruptive? What if a kick-ass HTC unit running Windows Phone 7 Series, this autumn, gives the iPhone a run for its money? What if the FTC signals it’s interested in breaking up Google? What if Microsoft gets its act together and develops a truly comprehensive, seamless online suite that transparently extends Windows 7 with Office 2010 and its new smartphone OS?

My gut prediction for the tech industry in 2015:

  • Apple’s market share remains constant, and people continue to give Apple the credit for having more influence than it really does.
  • Consumer pushback against invasive data practices by Facebook and Google result in a rollback of data-sharing, prompted by the threat of legislation and FTC inquiries and as a strategic move against online-ad monopoly lawsuits against Google. As aggressive opt-in strategies proliferate, people choose to opt-in less frequently, thereby undercutting a data-commodity revenue model that undergirds a chunk of Google’s strategic plan.
  • Open-source solutions (led, most iconically, by Canonical) grow in sophistication and polish but cannot significantly improve market share.
  • Infrastructure improves but is still not capable of reliably supporting ubiquitous cloud computing on mobile devices.
  • Hardware complexity continues to advance (more and more cores, more and more memory, increasingly powerful GPUs) but almost no consumer applications will tax the new standard of hardware resources. This will have serious implications in the enterprise market.
  • Microsoft has an internal shake-up that starts to move from a “battlin’ business unit” model into a more top-down and centralized hierarchy; this has implications for core business decisions.
  • Search is concentrated between Google and Bing, and the browser wars are largely as they are today.

Of course, the nice thing about predictions is that it’s mostly just a random guess.

Online Privacy: Time for Action

You visit a favorite Web site. You browse a while, and then you notice that all the ads you see are remarkably well-tailored for your unique preferences. The banner ads or AdSense offerings are for things that you like, or for businesses that are local to you. Product suggestions are for things you’ve recently browsed or purchased from a mail-order company.

How on earth does “teh Internets” know these things?

Simple.  You are a number in an enormous database, and the data associated with that number is growing at a frightening rate.

Savvy Web users already know that cookies can track your browsing history, but the old standby of blocking or deleting cookies is no longer enough.  Marketers are increasingly integrating offline data, or data from other online sources like social-networking sites, to develop a comprehensive profile about you. This profile worth its weight in gold — it can be sold and shared as an asset.  Worse, this aggregation is happening behind the scenes, with users unaware of the wide variety of information being integrated into their marketing profiles.

Ryan Singel, writing in Wired on April 9, reports that some privacy-protection groups have had enough:

Apple, Google, Microsoft

Some observations about the tech industry:

  • iPad was a curious direction for Apple. Not sure there is a market for oversized iPod Touches. It’s as if Apple is starting to believe its own hype, that it can do no wrong and everything it releases is magic. It’s a company whose motto ought to be, “I did it my way” — from locking down the App Store to eschewing the likely mods needed to be a player in the enterprise market, the company does what it wants to do so it can retain maximal control over its brand.  That’s fine.  But it’s also self-defeating.
  • Google terrifies me.  Yes, I have a GMail account, and I use Google Voice and Google Analytics. But the company scares me — it tracks too much, archives for too long, and appears to have some sort of master plan. And I don’t like companies that have master plans. It would not surprise me that when the Cylons finally come, they will be running Android (come to think of it, Android is a curious name for an OS …).  Google’s core business is search, and matching ads to search. But the forays into other areas (which have been successful mostly through acquisitions and not in-house development) suggests a growing monstrosity lurking in the corners: Why, exactly, does Google need to own broadband spectrum, fiber, cell phones, operating systems, social networks, IM systems, and such?  Because it archives and profiles data, for reasons that are not yet public.  That bugs me.  Especially when the company’s motto is “Don’t be evil.”  It’s as if they cynically believe that merely saying “don’t be evil” will lead people to believe that you are a force of good in the world.
  • I’m increasingly impressed with the “new” Microsoft. Windows 7, IE8, the demo Windows Phone 7 Series, and Bing are solid products.  Office 2010 Beta is positively orgasmic. And more to the point, given Microsoft’s “battlin’ business unit” model, I don’t really worry that info I store in a MS property will eventually be used to profile me for my assignment in the Brave New World of the Googleverse.

So:  Microsoft good, Google bad, Apple as emo adolescent.