Data use and privacy in Web services

Tim Cook recently made a speech attacking Silicon Valley companies (e.g. Google and Facebook) for making money by selling their users’ privacy. The problem with what he said is that, first of all, it’s fundamentally incorrect. As Ben Thompson points out (subscription required):

It’s simply not true to say that Google or Facebook are selling off your data. Google and Facebook do know a lot about individuals, but advertisers don’t know anything — that’s why Google and Facebook can charge a premium! [They] are highly motivated to protect user data – their competitive advantage in advertising is that they have data on customers that no one else has.

Cennydd Bowles also argues the same point:

The “you are the product” thing is pure sloganeering. It sounds convincing on first principles but doesn’t hold up to analysis. It’s essentially saying all two-sided platforms are immoral, which is daft.

The @StartupLJackson Twitter account puts this more plainly:

People who argue free-to-customer data companies (FB/Goog/etc) are selling data & hurting consumers are the anti-vaxxers of our industry.

I’ve always maintained that this is about a value exchange – you can use my data, as long as I get control and transparency over who sees it, and a useful service in return. But beyond that, another problem with making premium services where you pay for privacy is that you make a two-tier system. Cennydd again:

The supposition that only a consumer-funded model is ethically sound is itself political and exclusionary (of the poor, children, etc).

And Kate Crawford:

Two-tier social media: the rich pay to opt out of Facebook ads, the poor get targeted endlessly. Privacy becomes a luxury good.

Aside: Of course this suits Apple, as if wealthier clients can afford to opt out of advertising, then advertising itself becomes less valuable – as do, in turn, Google and Facebook.

The fact that people are willing to enter into a data exchange which benefits them when they get good services in return highlights the second problem with Tim Cook’s attack: Apple are currently failing to provide good services. As Thomas Ricker says in his snappily-titled Tim Cook brings a knife to a cloud fight:

Fact is, Apple is behind on web services. Arguably, Google Maps is better than Apple Maps, Gmail is better than Apple Mail, Google Drive is better than iCloud, Google Docs is better than iWork, and Google Photos can “surprise and delight” better than Apple Photos.

And even staunch Apple defender Jon Gruber agreed:

Apple needs to provide best-of-breed services and privacy, not second-best-but-more-private services. Many people will and do choose convenience and reliability over privacy. Apple’s superior position on privacy needs to be the icing on the cake, not their primary selling point.

As this piece by Jay Yarow for Business Insider points out, in the age of machine learning, more data makes better services. Facebook and Google are ahead in services because they make products that understand their users better than Apple do.

People And Robots Working Together

So many great insights in this piece by Dr James E. Young about managing people and robots working together. Like how just being in the presence of a robot made people up their game:

In our research, we showed how a simple, small robot could pressure people to continue a highly tedious task—even after the people expressed repeated desire to quit—simply with verbal prodding.

The tendency to anthropomorphism, assigning a personality to a non-human object, is well known, but it’s still amusing to think of people cursing their robot co-worker:

Most surprising was not that people obeyed the robot, but the strategies they employed to try to resist the pressure. People tried arguing with and rationalizing with the robot, or appealing to an authority who wasn’t present (a researcher), but either continued their work or only gave up when the robot gave permission.

I once read something (can’t find it now) about our natural deference to authority leading to us presuming infallibility in computers, even if that means satnav leads us into the sea. I can see this happening:

One could imagine a robot giving seemingly innocuous direction such as to make a bolt tighter, change a tool setting or pressure level, or even to change which electronic parts are used. However, what if the robot is wrong (for example, due to a sensor error) and yet keeps insisting? Will people doubt themselves given robots’ advanced knowledge and sensor capability?

The very notion of a sarcastic robot with a shit-eating grin made me laugh too much:

Research has shown people feel less comfortable around robots who break social norms, such as by having shifty eyes or mismatched facial expressions. A robot’s personality, voice pitch or even the use of whispering can affect feelings of trust and comfort.

Working with a robot that always grins while criticizing you, stares at your feet while giving recommendations, stares off into space randomly or sounds sarcastic while providing positive feedback would be awkward and uncomfortable and make it hard to develop one’s trust in the machine.

I began reading this as a cute, slightly funny piece about the future, then realised that this is happening right now and it stopped being quite so funny. I, for one, welcome our new robot co-workers

The Future of Journalism is in Refunds

Dutch journalism experiment, Blendle, on what they’ve learned from their first year of operation. It’s a pretty interesting idea: you buy a subscription, read the stories, but if there’s something you don’t like, you can request a refund. What they’ve found is that people don’t want to pay what they can get for free:

We don’t sell a lot of news in Blendle. People do spend money on background pieces. Great analysis. Opinion pieces. Long interviews. Stuff like that. In other words: people don’t want to spend money on the ‘what’, they want to spend money on the ‘why’.

And they don’t want to pay for what they perceive as without value:

Gossip magazines, for example, get much higher refund percentages than average (some up to 50% of purchases), as some of them are basically clickbait in print. People will only pay for content they find worth their money. So in Blendle, only quality journalism starts trending.

They have 250,000 users, and some amazing analytics for how they can grow that number.

The Ordinary Plenty from the Romans to the Web

Jeremy Keith has written another robust and passionate defence of the Web. The whole thing is worth your time, but in it he references something he previously wrote, about the value of archiving public discourse, what he calls the ordinary plenty:

My words might not be as important as the great works of print that have survived thus far, but because they are digital, and because they are online, they can and should be preserved… along with all the millions of other words by millions of other historical nobodies like me out there on the web.

In that piece he references the marginalia of medieval scribes, but this reminded me more of Pompeii. One of the highlights of my visit to the excavated town was to see the perfectly-preserved graffitti on the walls of streets and public buildings. There are tales of rivalry:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

Sweet messages of love:

Vibius Restitutus slept here alone and missed his darling Urbana.

And just downright filth:

Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!

It’s not artistic or even particulary literate, but it provides a much more vivid impression of the people who lived there than any contemporary account can ever match. And that’s why I agree with Jeremy on the value of preserving the “unimportant”.