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.