Episode 107

Being Tracked with Brett Gaylor

October 19, 2015

We've all known for many years that the websites we use keep track of who we are and what we are doing. Lately though, it seems like things have gotten out of control. Surveillance has gotten quite sophisticated and intrusive, and we've become more aware of what exactly we are giving up in exchange for being online. Is this a problem? How bad is it? What can we do?

In This Episode

  • What is tracking? What is being tracked? How is the data used?
  • Who cares if ads are personalized? What’s the problem?
  • Why should we care about privacy if we have nothing to hide?
  • How are these business models changing the web itself?
  • What is the role of VC funding in promoting corporate surveillance?
  • How does a data-driven system impact human creativity?
  • What are ethical concerns in collecting data?
  • Is tracking racist?
  • What about government surveillance?
  • What kind of tools exist to help us?
  • What does the future hold?

It's not always about you. If you don't "have anything to hide", chances are that you probably are a person of privilege. Good for you. But you need to think about that person who does. The young kid who is not sure how to come out and maybe it's not great that their sexuality gets outed on Facebook. You need to think about the person that's living under constant surveillance in your city because they're a young black male. Why would that person need to think differently about their anonymity and security than you? Or you need to uphold this social norm around privacy so journalists and human rights workers can do their work and they're not seen as such outliers when they just want to keep some letters inside of that sealed envelope. Of course everyone has something to hide.

Transcript

Thanks to Jenn Schlick for transcribing this episode

Jen

This is The Web Ahead, a weekly conversation about changing technologies and the future of the web. I'm your host Jen Simmons and this is episode number 107.

I first want to saw thank you so much to today's sponsors: View Source Conference presented by Mozilla, Backblaze, and Media Temple. I'll talk more about them later in the show. The audio files have been delivered to you by CacheFly, the fastest, most reliable CDN in the business — cachefly.com.

It's fall 2015. I'm ready to get ramped up on this show again. I'm ready to have a bunch of guests that I've been meaning to have for months and months. There's something about that back to school energy that makes it possible to start getting back to work.

Today's show is one of these topics that I have been wanting to do a show about for probably well over a year. It finally came together. My guest today is Brett Gaylor. Hi Brett.

Brett
Hi Jen! How are you doing?
Jen
Good. You are, like, a hero of mine. You did a documentary several years ago that I constantly recommend to people, The Remix Manifesto. I feel like not enough people have watched it.
Brett
Thanks for recommending it.
Jen
We talked about it on episode 4, if long time listeners remember. We talked about fair use in episode 4 and I talked about that documentary. People should go find it. It's all about whether or not you can use other copyrighted material in the work that you're doing and remix it.
Brett
You can find it free on the web. The National Film Board of Canada hosts it. There's versions on YouTube. I think you can find it on Vimeo. I think if you use Hulu, it's on there. If you're Canadian, it's on Netflix.
Jen

Yeah. And it's good. It's really good. [Laughs] It's really, really well done.

But we're going to talk today about a different documentary that you did on another subject that I think is equally important to those of us who make websites. It's called Do Not Track. Tell us about this. Tell us about tracking and this documentary.

Brett

We call Do Not Track a personalized documentary series about privacy in the web economy. That's the succinct pitch.

It's a seven part documentary series that I made with a whole bunch of great people. Some different public broadcasters. This one was made with the National Film Board of Canada, like RIP was. Also, Arte, which is a public broadcaster that's free to air in France and Germany. As well as Bayerischer Rundfunk, a German public broadcaster that's in Bavaria. Munich is the biggest city there. AJPlus, which is a part of Al Jazeera but it's their digital-only station. Some other different media partners. We worked with the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and some folks in Switzerland. It was a whole bunch of different public media folks that wanted to get together to have a conversation about how privacy is changing online.

That's who was making it, but I think your question was, "What is it?" It's a seven part series but you watch it on the web. The conceit of the series is that it's a documentary series about tracking you that tracks you whole you're watching it. [Jen laughs]

We use a bunch of different techniques to try to personalize this. If you were watching the documentary, it knows the kinds of things that your audience, as web developers, can know about a person that's using the web. You can know where they're accessing it from. You can know if they're on an advertising network, if you share a cookie with that network. You can know the time of the day, the weather. You can know a whole bunch of information about that viewer.

We wanted to incorporate that into the film so the series is different for each person that watches it. That's the experience we have of the web now. It's for you. For Jen. We don't create these canonical websites anymore. Increasingly, for reasons that we can get into, the web has become this very personalized experience. We wanted to go down the rabbit hole of what that means and what the implications are, what we win, what we lose, what we can do about it, and what the implications are of this change in the web.

Jen
People can go to donottrack-doc.com and watch it there. Is there a version that's just, sit down for 90 minutes and watch it on your TV? Or does it only exist in this version, this interactive film in seven parts?
Brett
There are lots of different versions. Depending on where you watch it, you'll see a different host. I'm the host for Canada. If you watch it in French Canada, you would see my colleague Sandra Rodriguez. If you watched it on your mobile phone in the United States, you'd see one of the hosts from Al Jazeera. If you see it in Germany, you would see somebody speaking in German. In France, you'd see somebody speaking in French. There are different versions. I feel like I could talk about this with your audience. There are things we could do on desktop that we couldn't necessarily do on mobile. Those versions are much more straight-ahead videos. There was actually a TV version that was a complete remix of all of this material that was done by a filmmaker in France. She had her editor take what we learned in the series. That was aired traditionally on TV in Germany. So, yeah, a lot of different versions exist.
Jen
It's something for anybody who likes to dig into code and how things are built, I'm sure there are a zillion different APIs and JavaScript tricks that you've got running that people could dig into if they feel like it.
Brett
Yeah, it was hard. There were aspects of things that you'd want to do on desktop. I worked on this JavaScript library called Popcorn.js at one point, earlier in my career. That JavaScript library was basically for timing web events with media objects. So, at minute two, let's call the Yahoo weather API to see what the weather is. You can't do that on mobile because a lot of the different browsers that won't work on mobile require you to choose to play the media before it plays. Mostly because Apple wants you to develop apps. They don't want you to use the web. They also that so you, as a developer, aren't triggering the play of a piece of media that might cost the user a whole bunch of their bandwidth. That was a total nightmare. Then there were all sorts of things with layout that we were trying to do, that did not work on older browsers. Because we're public media funded, we wanted to make sure that it works for the most amount of Germans possible. Not every German is running the latest version of Firefox. Although Germany is a bad example because they do actually tend to be using the latest version of Firefox. If somebody's running IE9, they're not going to be able to watch certain parts of the doc.
Jen
Let's get into tracking and what's going on. What are these corporations doing when they track us when we go from one website to another website?
Brett

Most of the tracking that we experience in our day-to-day life comes from advertising. The basics of how it works is that you have an ad network. The biggest one that people are probably familiar with is DoubleClick, that was bought by Google.

Say you go to the New York Times. The New York Times will drop a cookie. Say you navigate to another website. For example, you go to a different sports website. If that sports website uses the same ad network as the New York Times, it will recognize that cookie. There will be an instantaneous bid that's been initiated by people who want to reach certain audiences. If the advertiser says, "I want to reach somebody that reads the New York Times and watches sports." Let's call that psychographic middle income sports enthusiast. They can target that based on that browsing history that you have.

They can also do that with other factors that they may have bought from data brokers. They can combine that with things like your geography that we mentioned earlier. I want to only reach people in Vancouver that like the New York Times and sports websites. Or I only want to reach people who have purchased things on Amazon in the last three days. Or people that live in affluent postal codes. Or people that live in postal codes that have a preponderance to purchasing medical supplies. The list is endless. It often starts from the advertising, but that become one data point among many that people can use to figure out, "Who's watching these? Who's looking at this webpage?"

Jen

I was thinking about it this morning. Why are so many web developers, people that understand this kind of technology, hesitant to believe that it's much more complex and smarter and much more of an artificial intelligence than we imagine? I was wondering if it's because so many of us build websites and we know how hard it is to build a website. We know how often those projects so badly. [Both laugh] You're working with 50 people for a year on some multi-million dollar project and it finally ships. You think, "Wow. If this team were going to try to put together a data recognition tracking algorithm, we would do a really bad job." [Brett laughs] It would be pretty simple. I think we sometimes think that what is out there is pretty simple. "I went to the New York Times, I've surfed around the New York Times website every day for a long time. I'm logged in. Clearly, the New York Times is paying attention to which articles I read and how long I spent on each page. Maybe those ads will know you spent a lot of time on this section of the website, so maybe these are ads you'd like to see." I think we all imagine that's how it works. Because that's sort of how things have worked for awhile now, before the internet.

But I think it's so much worse than that. Part of it is what you just described. There are not that many ad networks. Each ad network can write any script or cookies or robot or whatever. If you go to 100 websites in a week, all of them are using this one ad network, DoubleClick or any of them. You probably go to 500 websites. Out of those, 100 of them are using this particular advertising network. That advertising network now knows everything you did on those 100 websites. You can put together a picture of who somebody is. Plus all of those things you just described. All of the other data that's out there about demographics. They pretty much are nailing down who you are, who do you like, who are your friends, what are your friends into, how much money do you make, where do you live, what's your race, what's your gender? What kind of stereotypes about people like you can we start applying to you? In part, to serve ads. I guess that's kind of where people feel like, "That's not so bad. I get ads that I like better, because they're targeted towards me."

Brett

There's a ton to unpack in what you just said. [Jen laughs]

The first part is, people have this experience of, "Yeah, I know what you're talking about. I was on Amazon looking for a camera. When I logged into Facebook, there were ads for that camera. Oh my god, this guy is following the pictures of the camera that I was looking for." [Jen laughs] "I'm not sure I understand what the problem is here." So there's that concern. Then there's the concern from the smart web developer who's like, "Frankly, these algorithms are shit. They're always showing me the wrong stuff."

Jen
Right. Or, "I already bought that camera, why do you keep advertising it? It's coming tomorrow, don't you know that? Why do you keep showing me ads two weeks later?"
Brett

Then there's a third concern which is, "So what? I'm getting advertised. Maybe it's better that it's showing me a camera that I might like instead of ads for cigarettes, which I would never smoke."

All of those concerns were ones that I had myself, as I was making the documentary series. But what I wanted to do was create something that had enough room in it that we could explore each of those concerns.

On those first concerns, it's not that we should all run for the hills because there's an ad network that knows that I bought a fishing lure an I read an article on the New York Times. It's about what that is doing to the web. How is that informing the direction that the web takes?

In the second episode of the series, we had an interview with Ethan Zuckerman. Some of your readers might know Ethan. He runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT. He's one of the co-founders of Global Voices. He's a fantastic human being. And he happens to be the person that invented the pop-up ad. [Jen laughs] He created that when he was one of the founding members of Tripod. He tells this story of very early in the web. There was a discussion about how this would be paid for. Because it was convenient, advertising became one of those methods. As you follow how that evolved, it became this race to the bottom. If we're selling ads, there's going to be a race to see who can sell ads that convert the best. By convert, I mean cause the user to buy the thing or take the action. There became this arms race to see who could collect more and more and more information about people. That's really what has happened within the advertising industry.

You might say, again, "So what?" I noticed this in my own browsing behavior, and it's one of the reasons that I made the film. I used to go to dozens and dozens of websites over the course of the day. Now I'm finding that I really don't. I really visit the same sites all the time. That's because this model of advertising and collecting information about people really favors incumbents. We used to think about the web as this great thing because there would be dozens and dozens of stores. There's this incredible long tail, that you could find anything you want. It turns out that there is just store. [Laughs] There's just Amazon. We thought there would be dozens of social networks for everything that you want. It turns out there is just social network. There is Facebook. We though there would be dozens of different search engines. It turns out there is just Google. That's because they're the only ones that can afford to command the same level of eyeballs that are going to attract the advertisers and attract the venture capital needed to get these businesses off the ground.

If you go to a venture capitalist right now, they're going to want to know how you're planning to monetize that audience. Because it's the dominant business model, you're likely going to say that you're going to advertise to them. Facebook and Twitter are basically saying, "We have a better mousetrap to insert somebody's message. People would be more likely to pay for that." Look at Pinterest. It's got this crazy high valuation is because what they're saying is, "By tracking the things that people collect around the web, we're building this even better profile than what Google might have." Snapchat is going to be the same. All of these new services are basically designed to collect more and more and more information.

You might ask again, "So what?" Then you really start getting into some of the really profound questions about privacy and what it means to human beings and why it is an essential part of a health democracy. You start maybe not calling the issue "privacy" but one of "human rights" and the notion that privacy is an essential part of free speech and free expression. If we don't have the notion that we can participate online without somebody watching it, we are losing part of what we hold more dear in Western democracies.

I'm pounding on my desk right now. [Pounds on desk] [Jen laughs] Sorry, I got going a little bit there.

Jen

No, again, there is so much to unpack in what you just said. I don't like an industry that's driven so heavily by this one business model of taking a bunch of VC money. Do anything and everything you can to get as many eyeballs as you can and as much data about those eyeballs as you can. Don't worry about the user experience — the experience of the person who's using the thing that you're making — unless it's helping you get more people. Make it awesome because you'll get more people, but it's really not about making those people happy. It's really about getting more people.

We see that with Twitter. We're all frustrated with Twitter because Twitter keeps making these decisions that are really about getting more, more, more new users and building this specific model that's built around volume of eyeballs and advertising.

Brett

This is a cheap shot but it's also why we've seen the rise of clickbait. That's why those articles are structured in that why. That's why that content exists.

In making this documentary, I had a real crash course in how tough it is to be a publisher in 2015. You are up against an army of the ten best swimsuits and cat photos.

Jen
Oh, it's never ten because ten is an even number. It's much better if you use a prime number. It will be something like, "Check out these 17 best swimsuits." Because they've done research. That's the thing that really drives me crazy.
Brett

Or there's a script that's running on that page that is actually generating 15 headlines at that moment and A/B tested in the click of an eye the one that's most likely to appeal. Not to just anyone, but to you. To Jen. Because of the other websites that you visited.

We got into this in the 6th episode. This notion of the filter bubble and personalized news and personalized content. What we're losing there.

It sounds like we're being very alarmist. But what we wanted was the space to have this conversation. It's not one that people are familiar with having. Generally, when you talk about privacy at all, the number one thing that you have to overcome is the, "I'm not a terrorist. I'm not a human rights worker. I'm not a journalist. I don't frankly care if people know where I live or see my cat photos." That's a huge headwind for somebody that's trying to get people to think about privacy. But it absolutely needs to be unpacked.

The Snowden quote is saying you don't need privacy because you don't have anything to hide is like saying you don't need freedom of speech because you don't have anything to say. It's not always about you. If you don't "have anything to hide", chances are that you probably are a person of privilege. Good for you. But you need to think about that person who does. The young kid who is not sure how to come out and maybe it's not great that their sexuality gets outed on Facebook. You need to think about the person that's living under constant surveillance in your city because they're a young black male. Why would that person need to think differently about their anonymity and security than you? Or you need to uphold this social norm around privacy so journalists and human rights workers can do their work and they're not seen as such outliers when they just want to keep some letters inside of that sealed envelope. Of course everyone has something to hide. Otherwise you wouldn't put your letter in an envelope and you wouldn't have doors on the bathroom and you wouldn't have drapes on your windows. There is part of being human where you act differently when you know people are watching.

It's really complicated. [Both laugh] You know? Does that mean that we shouldn't have personalized advertising? It's not binary. It's not yes or no. It's just that we wanted to have the space to have that conversation. That's why, A) We did it as a seven part series, and B) We track you a little bit. The Vice review was like, "This is creepy."

Jen
Like, yeah? [Laughs] You're not even tracking very much compared to what is actually happening invisibly all the time.
Brett

Exactly. Your web developers would be like, "Come on. It's not tracking to just show the geolocation." But it is getting people into that mindframe to think about, "Oh yeah. There's that information that I do disclose voluntarily and there's that information that I don't. Why is it that some people get to have that information?"

It's also the case that it's not uniform. By working with a lot of German people, I learned there are things we take for granted that corporations can know about us in North America which, over there, they're not allowed to know. There are social norms and legislative norms. It's like Lessig's four forces of code, law, norms... there's another one. [Laughs] All of that is in play around what we think of as a society in terms of our privacy.

Jen

Let me jump in with our first sponsor today, the View Source Conference presented by Mozilla.

I want to get to talking about privacy and democracy and government surveillance and stuff. But before we get to that, I want to talk more about the fact that the web itself is being changes by this reality. If we jumped in a time machine and went back 10 years and took a different road and there was some other business model that meant people had money. There was no advertising. None of this chasing eyeballs stuff. None of this clickbait. None of this constant tracking. I feel like we would have ended up with a very different web. I feel like we would have ended up with something different. It's upsetting. I think for many of us, when we see old dinosaur business models erode, it's like, "Catch up with the times." But when we see the good stuff about real journalism being eaten up by clickbait headlines, or we see the good stuff about community space being destroyed by this social network space that's all about serving the advertisers and collecting data. The space itself is about data collection. It's not about interaction between humans and helping humans have great experiences with each other and getting to know strangers. It's about them getting to know us as pure data points.

Brett
Yeah. [Pauses] It's like, wa-wa-wa. [Both laugh]
Jen
So, thanks for being on the show! [Laughs]
Brett

There's this moment in episode two. Julia Angwin, a journalist at ProPublica, has written a lot about these issues. She wrote a really great book called Dragnet Nation that you should read if you want to get more depressed. [Jen laughs] No, it's a really good piece of investigative journalism. She tells that story. It used to be that the internet was a diverse place. It was largely run by academics and do-gooders. There was this moment in time when that changed and it was all around 9/11. There were two forces that led to that. One was the terrorist attacks in New York and the government ramp-up of surveillance. The other was the dot com crash and Silicon Valley needing to latch onto a business model that was going to be profitable. She charts how that happened.

I don't know if your listeners know this, but you're a Tech Evangelist for Mozilla. [Note from Jen: yes! I just got a new job in August.] I played that role myself as well, in the past. Being somebody who was trying to get many, many people to come onto the web. Part of making this series I almost felt guilty about that. [Jen laughs] Wanting to take a second look of, "Everyone should get on the internet!" Pause right there. Which internet? That's what makes me still love the web. It isn't necessarily a zero sum game. You mentioned, could we have something different if we used different business models or took a different approach. Yes. We still can. It just might be that there needs to be intention to build other spaces on the web where we don't concern ourselves with success equaling...

Jen
A VC exit.
Brett
Yeah, a VC exit. Log rhythmic growth. Money, money, money, eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs. It might be that it needs to be ok for that are building the web to make things for 10 people. Or think about your success as... did you... improve someone's life today? [Laughs] It's early on the web. For those of us who have built our careers, that's how we've measure ourselves. Did it put a dent in the universe? Like the Steve Jobs thing. Maybe we need to think more like writers think.
Jen
And artists.
Brett
Exactly. It's not always The Big Exit.
Jen
I want to jump in and say that I'm pro capitalism. I think making money from businesses is great. But, I think there's a world in which people assume that if you want to have a great, successful business in the tech industry, you should absolutely go after as much VC funding as possible. But the moment you do that, you've promised an exit. The moment you do that, you have to have exponential growth. The moment you do that, you have to have a bazillion employees, which means you need more VC money.

There are many people I know who have built really successful businesses and are doing quite well for themselves. They have employees. They are growing. But they have 30 employees not 3,000 employees. They're not screaming towards an exit. They're actually carefully crafting a product that people love and want to use it and pay to use it. They've got several thousand users, not several billion users. [Laughs] It's a different kind of model that's not so crazy.

Brett
Do you know the work of this guy... man, I wish you did actually edit sometimes. [Both laugh] I'll mispronounce his name. Maciej Cegłowski. He runs this awesome blog called Idle Words. He's also an entrepreneur who has a small but successful startup called Pinboard. He's hilarious. He does a lot of talks about exactly what you described. Some people called it the slow web. Having a startup that keeps him and his family in business. He feels privileged that he can have a career that's doing that. He charges money for his service and provides value to the universe. He writes about how the web would be different if more people thought that way. A lot of his writing was really influential on the series. I found it from an article that Ethan Zuckerman wrote called The Internet's Original Sin, which is about advertising and this question. You should link to it, if you can.
Jen

We'll put all of that in the show notes. People, the show notes are at thewebahead.net/107. We will a bunch of these links into those show notes. Also, people have been writing and telling me that the RSS feed that comes through the 5by5 network has no show notes in it. They're kind of frustrated with that. I'm working on it. I'm going to see. I really want the feed to come off The Web Ahead website. But it's a big infrastructure change. But I hear all of you and thank you for your feedback. I'll try to get that straightened out.

What you were just saying reminds me of something that I think a lot about. Artists or writers or people who have a small business. People who want to have an impact on the world and think about, "How can I have my stamp? What can I offer? What can I give that has value for other people that will also create value for me and make it possible for me to support my family?" I love that about our part of society. That small business society, that craftsman society, that individual artisan. That person who's out in the world making something and putting it out there and seeing whether or not the market likes their ideas. In the US, it's patriotic. That's supposed to be what capitalism is. When you're in school, that's what you're taught. Capitalism is, "This dude has shovels and this dude has something else and they sell things to each other."

Part of what's happening does not have to do with advertising. It goes much further than advertising. It's about how products get made. How new ideas come out. Instead of it being a person who's designing clothes and sewing them and hires five or 50 employees to sew those clothes and walks from store to store and tries to sell them or opens their own store and sells them.

Instead it becomes this mega, corporate, global business that's hiring fashion designers but really they're hiring workers to churn out new fashion. They're outsourcing all of that to countries where they can pay people 10 cents an hour and don't have to obey any environmental laws or see any of the consequences of the choices that they're making. They make those products and ship it back to other places around the globe and sell it for insanely cheap prices that are way too low. It becomes this machine.

I feel like the data mining online is about feeding that machine. Saying, "What's hot this year? Let's grab as much data off Pinterest as we can. Look, skinny jeans are in again, or they're not in again." I'm just using fashion as an example. It goes across every part of our world. It used to be that you were an artist and designed a new chair. You wanted that to be sold. Maybe it was handcrafted and sold in small quantities. Maybe you sold that design to a bigger company or maybe you worked for a bigger company. But you designed a chair because you thought a lot about chairs and studied chairs and care about chairs. [Laughs] You're an artist. Instead it's like, are people buying chairs right now or not? Being complete about robots.

Brett
Exactly. "We A/B tested these seven chairs and you won't believe what we found out!" [Jen laughs]
Jen

Right! I find that very disturbing. Especially as someone who has been a designer my whole adult life. I've even seen a little bit of that idea creep into the web design world. People who I actually had a lot of respect for are standing on stages at events at I had a lot of respect for, saying things like, "We need to get more market data. You need to collect data about your users." They're not talking about user testing. They're talking about plugging into the massive data store. This giant data monster that has been created. "It's awesome! We need to use that! That's going to tell us how to design our next project!"

That's where I'm like, waaait. What about humans? What about humanity? What about art and commerce? What about instinct and design? Google A/B tests the hell out of everything. They turn everything into numbers and make all of their decisions based on numbers. I just... I don't like that.

Brett
I can hear you. [Jen laughs] You're hitting your...
Jen
I'm hitting my microphone. "I. Don't. Like. That!" [Both laugh]
Brett

I think what you are running up against is what I think a lot of us are trying to figure out. What are the new ethics? Big data is part of our life now. Algorithms are part of our life now. I was really inspired by the work of Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford. They created an institute in New York called the Data & Society Research Institute. Danah runs it. It looks at these questions of what are ethical ways to look at data sets? What are ethical ways to make judgements that aren't excluding large numbers of people? All of us that work on the web are wrestling with these issues every day.

I also work for Mozilla. We do a fundraising campaign every year so we can pay for the work we do in education and human rights. That teams wants to take advantage of these techniques to figure out different ways that you can present your appeal that are going to excite the most amount of potential donors. That's a tool that we have in our toolkit. How do you do that ethically? What are the best practices around data collection? Just because you can convert more people by opting them into a whole bunch of choices that they didn't choose themselves, should you do that? Where are those lines?

Again, with the series, sometimes we don't answer all of the questions that we raise. This is a new ethical period that we are finding ourselves in, as a society. It is not really a public conversation. Even with the Snowden revelation. There's an Oscar-award winning film, everyone knows who Edward Snowden is. They don't really know what the league was and why it mattered. How much bigger of a stage could you have for privacy and yet people still aren't freaking out? It's hard to put both hands around the issue of privacy and surveillance. It is very nuanced. There's areas where we clearly have benefits from sharing. I had quit Facebook years ago and I had to get back on it to properly market this documentary. [Both laugh] I was like, "Oh yeah! That person. I found them again." It's kind of nice to know how their kids are doing. There clearly are benefits that we get from it. I think it's about trying to develop it. What are the social norms? What is the market responding to? It's complicated stuff. I keep saying that at the end of everything. It's not meant to be a cop-out. It's just really early days for this. It's an individual thing. You have to figure out, as a web developer or the person building the chair, what are your bright-lines?

Jen

I don't think there's going to be an all-or-nothing. I don't think we'll get that choice, even if we wanted to have it. I hope that if you're the manager running the chair design department, you're able to find a way to push back on any boss who says, "Everything must be driven completely by data. Our data shows this. Our market data shows that. Our market data shows this, this, and this. We happen to know that people who earn between $150,000-$200,000 year, are white, and live in this part of this country definitely want chairs with this many legs." To say, at these moments we'll take in data because it's helpful and useful and not creepy. At these moments, we're going to reject that kind of data. At all of these other places in between, we're going to play it by ear. We're going to make sure we have real design involved as well as some information that we might have about users or about what people want.

I don't know. Can we do that? Can we all have conversations? We're not talking about this stuff at all. We're just sucking in the data without even realizing it's there and everything's getting changed.

Brett

It goes back to one of the first points you raised. Sometimes it's clear that it doesn't work. Back to Facebook, their business model is not being able to sell you better ads because they know that you ate beans in the morning. Their business model is a straight up bait and switch. Basically, they have figured out that it used to be that you would post something on your page and everybody that followed you would see it. Now we're going to charge you for that. You know what that business model is. That is the drug dealer's business model of "first one is free". It has nothing to do with being able to actually have these better analytics and blah blah blah. It's just straight up charging you to get people to see your stuff.

It is worth being critical about this stuff. Big data is always sold as this magical formula that's going to solve all of your business problems. Sometimes that's just bunk. It's not going to. It's not going to have the better outcome. There's a lot of snake oil out there right now. Sometimes just inventing something is the better way to go.

Jen

Let me jump in with our second sponsor, Media Temple.

Jen

There's another thing that I try to understand, in why this gets to me so much. Thirty years ago I was involved with some young business entrepreneur club for kids or something. One of the things that we learned about was you could buy mailing lists based on zip codes. I was trying to search on the web for it this morning and it seemed like there are 100 million companies that offer this service now. But I think back in the day there was one or two or three big ones. Companies would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars going to one of these companies and saying, "I want to reach housewives from households that earn at least this much money, between this age and this age." That company would say, "Here are the zip codes that will fulfill that." They did have these names. You alluded to that before. There's an industry name for that. You make up stereotypes or stories. They're almost user stories. But they're more like categories of humans. "There's a category of human, a male who has this level of education. He's into these particular things. He's into sports and reading the New York Times." It gives a name to each of those things.

Brett
There's always these hilarious personas. "Fiery, hog-driving housewives." [Both laugh] That's exactly these big data brokers are. They're the inheritors of that.
Jen
That was 30 years ago. They maybe used computers but hardly anybody else did. Maybe they even did it on index cards. [Laughs] I thought it was creepy and weird and invasive at that point, but it's way worse now.
Brett

That's often how they're getting around some of the legislation. The biggest company in the space is called Acxiom. The heritage of that company are the direct mail companies. People have always had the experience of, for example, donating to Canadian Cancer Foundation. All of a sudden you're getting tons of spam. They'll say, "I bought this list of people who donated to charities. I bought this other list of people that have registered for firearms. I bought this other list. By combining those, I'm seeing correlations between people." That's the thing they're selling. "We have these new market insights." When you're trying to get Fitbit to market — I'm not trying to pick on them, I don't know if they've ever used this — if you want to reach this specific person, we can offer that to you through the magic of big data. Back in the day, it was caveman time, when you were only getting people who had donated to charities. The money is in combining that. They can get around some of these laws around data retention, by being the party that combines all of these in unique ways.

Acxiom is interesting. Maybe your listeners are American, they should check it out. They have records on 50 million Americans or something. Odds are, you're in there somewhere. You can find out that information.

Jen
It struck me as being playing on stereotypes. If you're living in this zip code, you must want this product that I have. I'm going to mail you a postcard. I guess an argument could be made that if it's more targeted, you're going to be less stereotypical. But I feel like the opposite is happening. "I want soccer mom, so this is what I'm looking for. All of these people are not white, so this is what I think about them." Especially these days, we're so invested in these crazy stereotypes and buckets that we shove everybody into. You can look at someone's online profile photo and you have this sense of who they are and what you think about them. To have companies that are not only marketing and sending specific ads, but also designing products and making decisions about what's going to be offered based on these stereotypes just seems to be the most of humanity.
Brett

It's a certain business logic that we've become accustomed to. Danah gives this example of frequent flyer points. We think it's totally cool that because you fly more than me, you get upgraded. You get to go into the lounge. You get seated at the front of the plane. How comfortable would you be for that logic to be applied to somebody getting different pricing for their food? Different postal codes being offered a better price when they go to Staples?

Those are real things that are happening. You're starting to see discriminatory pricing. "We're going to offer this product for slightly less if you live far away from downtown." The logic is that you're probably willing to pay a little more because there's not as much competition. Maybe that's ok. But what if the fact that people who live far away from the downtown because that's the only part of the city they can afford to live in? All of a sudden, you're discriminating against people of a certain class. Oftentimes, those realities are structured based on historical data around race. This is complicated stuff.

We have to start to think about the ethics. Do there need to be watchdogs around these things? In the same way that we used to have ombuds offices for other types of institutions, like journalism or medicine. These pillars of our society affect many people. We would have these checks and balances. A lot of people are thinking, maybe it's time that we have those around use of data and ethical uses of information that's collected about us. Oftentimes, we did not volunteer that information. It's just something that's known about us.

Jen
"Come to my new website. It's awesome. You'll find a doctor. For you, I'm going to offer you these doctors. For you, I'm going to offer you access to these doctors. For you people over there, mmm. We're going to give you access to this other set of doctors instead." It just seems like it's ripe for horribleness.
Brett
In some things, it is clearly illegal to discriminate based on those grounds. It's because we've already discovered major problems with that. In the last century, there's a process called redlining that occurred in Chicago. Literally, a red line was drawn on the map, inside of which banks would make loans to people. Outside of that line, they would never loan to those people. Oftentimes, outside of those red lines were people of color. A lot of activists would organize to make sure that process was illegal.
Jen
It's harder when these companies can say, "We weren't discriminating because you're black, or because of race. We're discriminating because of this crazy data model that's so complicated you can't even understand it. It has nothing to do with race." Or we don't even know. You're talking about pricing on stores. What about Amazon? Does it offer the same price to everybody? Because I live in New York City they raise the prices 10%, because in New York everything is more expensive. Who knows. They could have been doing that for the past several years and we wouldn't have known it. Now we're getting a little crazy.
Brett
Yeah, but it's...
Jen
It's the new reality, I think.
Brett
Yeah. If you want to see what it looks like, if you try to book a flight on something like Expedia in private browsing mode in your browser, you will see that you'll get different prices than if you had been logged in for a certain amount of time and looked at several flights. They'll do that. You can see how that system works and extrapolate out why you wouldn't want that applied to certain parts of society and why it's worth paying attention and having an opinion about what is right and wrong.
Jen

Especially for anyone who works at any of these companies. I hope people are able to speak up and say, "That crosses a line. I don't think we should be building that."

We should talk about government a bit. I know we're quickly running out of time. I also want to talk about tools people can use. You just mentioned private browsing mode. There is hope! I promise hope at the end of this show. [Both laugh] There is hope on the horizon, so I want to talk about that, too.

Let's talk about the government. If people haven't seen the documentary about Edward Snowden, I totally recommend it. Citizen Four. Very scary and very real. I feel like anybody who thinks, "The government would never come after me because I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm not a terrorist. I'm not trying to subvert the government. I'm not organizing a militia. I'm not planning a crime. If they want to keep an eye on everybody else who is doing that, then I'm ok with that. I want to be safe and I want the government to take care of society for me." I feel like that's a super naive way of looking at things. If you know anything about the civil rights movement in the United States, the FBI was all over the African-American movement. Going after Martin Luther King. "All of those activists, what are they up to? All of those people, what are they doing?"

It's not just historical. If you look at what's happening right now with the Black Lives Matter movement. I'm sure there are government agencies tracking it. Look at Occupy Wall Street. When people were protesting the Republican National Convention when it was in New York in 2004. The police were running around, grabbing people from the streets, throwing them in jail. [Actually] they weren't throwing them in jail, they were throwing them in giant buildings that have been closed for years because they are toxic waste sites. They were locking people up in those buildings. No lawyers, no access to anything. Just disappearing them for three or four days and then letting them back out again. That's low-level stuff that seems to be the normal problems that are going on. The corrupt government that's implementing the desires of the powerful and the rich and the corporations rather than upholding the constitution or upholding democracy.

That's just one country. Of course, these kinds of things are happening even worse in other places with dictators and crazy governments.

Brett

It's an old, old, old discussion around liberty and privacy. This is not new. You pointed out Cointelpro, which was a government program in the United States to spy on, disrupt, and cause harm to the Black Panthers. Yes, the Department of Homeland Security is sending people into Black Lives Matter protests to monitor what's going on there. That is very much happening now.

You don't have to go back that far in history to see where some of these programs to collect information about people have gone wrong. I think it was in Poland when that was part of the Soviet block. They kept records on homosexual people. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, there has been an effort to make sure those files are erased. But nobody knows where they are or how to even do that. There's a time bomb of a bunch of identities out there.

It points to this notion that the only way to make sure that information doesn't fall into the wrong hands is not to collect it. It has to be pointed out that nobody — that we know of — none of these programs have led to terrorists being apprehended. Terrorists have been apprehended because of good ol' intelligence work of people doing their jobs. You do not need to collect information about every citizen in your country to do intelligence work. You simply don't.

In Canada, we're having that conversation right now. There was a bill that was proposed to do that mass surveillance. People have been caught up in that. Environmental groups are being surveilled. Anybody who takes any position against the government. That's not what we want. We want to have a healthy democracy where people feel empowered to critique the government. That's the only way that we get the outcomes that we want. For people to feel like all options have been explored. All voices have been heard. If you can't express that without fear of recrimination from your government, you won't. There won't be that space for dissent and discussion and democracy. It's an important human rights issue.

Jen
It really does a number on you. When you're thinking about getting involved in some kind of movement, like Black Lives Matter, or go to a protest. You stop and think, "Do I really want to be photographed? Do I really want to be followed? Am I ok with there being a chance that I'll be put into a database and down the road somebody's going to misunderstand who I am?"
Brett

Here's an example, Jen. Do you remember last year, in the Ukraine, there was huge unrest there? There were many, many protests. Some were peaceful, some where not peaceful. It was a major international event last year. You have to remember that the Ukraine is, in many ways, a modern state. At some of those protests, people received a text message on their phone that said, "You are at an unauthorized protest and your presence at that protest has been recorded." Think about how chilling that is. That means your name is in a government database somewhere as being essentially an enemy of the state. How likely are you to go to the protest next time?

We don't have to look to science fiction to start thinking about why these are practices that don't have any place in the kind of countries that we want.

Jen

I also find it really weird. I thought science fiction is exactly the medium that explained to us, decades before, why this would be so bad. I thought that nerds who build stuff with code are the people who are into understanding that kind of science fiction and that kind of problem. Yet, I feel like there's so many people who fell in love with Google a decade ago. They had a romance with Google. They think it would be the best job ever. They get to play with LEGOs and if they had been there from the first couple of years they would have been rich. Now they're willing to forgive everything. Forgive what Chrome is doing. Forgive what these corporations are doing — selling our data and refusing to do things like encryption.

You see this battle happening between Apple and Google and Microsoft and some of the other big corporations right now. The discussion. I feel like they're talking about it far more than we are. The web community is not talking about it. But Apple and Google and Microsoft are having a big conversation about this right now. Just today, there was an article in the news about Apple and Microsoft encrypting all kinds of data. Apple encrypting all of the text messages that go through its service. The government of the United States being very angry about that and trying to force them to unencrypt everything so they can be spied on.

I feel like Google is on the opposite side of this. They're fighting the government surveillance, but they're all about the corporate surveillance. They don't even call it surveillance. It's advertising or data models or product information about your customers. There's a part of me that doesn't understand why more people aren't more alarmed about all of this.

Brett

I guess because nerds... they're us. [Laughs] They done good. I totally know how people who are cheering for Google feel. Like I said before, I was one of those people who was encouraging my friends and family to use Google. Get on the internet. Sign up for Facebook, sign up for Twitter, it's amazing.

I think these companies go often have society's best interest at heart. I don't think everybody that works for these companies or their leadership are bad.

Jen
No, me either.
Brett

It's just that we give them a pass, as geeks. In ways that we wouldn't necessarily take everything that British Petroleum says at face value. We'd want to interrogate that a little bit more. We might take them to task and hold them to standard and want them to evolve as responsible corporate citizens. We don't necessarily apply that same pressure to Silicon Valley. I think it's because Silicon Valley has that person in the garage thing that you mentioned. The little person who rose up through the ranks. It's hard to get mad at them.

Also, a lot of the language is about changing the world and making the world better. Oftentimes, they have changed the world and made it better. Just because Twitter did a great job of helping activists get their message out in the Arab Spring does not mean they also should think about their data retention policies and be subject to the same level of scrutiny that we hold other billion dollar industries to. We should be even more vigilant about our friends than we are about other types.

Jen

Let me jump in with another sponsor, Backblaze.

Jen

It feels like, it was also new and we spent so many decades convincing people they should use this computer stuff, it's cool. It feels very much now that this has grown up and the entire world is looking at the tech industry as the industry. As the future. For better or worse, all of the good and bad things about all sorts of companies. What it means to be a human running around the planet has found its way into the tech world. I hope it's time for many of us who have a lot more power around this, because we have so much knowledge, to speak up about some of these ethical issues. Speak up about what it is that we really want to see. Speak up when we start to see something that we don't want to see. Instead of saying "everything is awesome" just because of the form that it comes in. The form could go one way or the other. Let's make sure we do something awesome with this stuff instead of something bad.

Brett
Is it the web's 20th anniversary?
Jen
It depends on how you count. 25, 21.
Brett
Yeah. 20 is like, Netscape IPO. So it's a 20 year old.
Jen
It thinks it knows everything but doesn't. [Laughs]
Brett
Exactly! It's time to have more adult conversations about money and choices it's making in its life. The awkward teenage years where you're like, "They'll grow out of that." It's like, yeah, no. It's time to have some grownup conversation with the web.
Jen
About going to work and paying your rent.
Brett
Or maybe that thing that you said at the dinner party was kind of jerky. We're straining the metaphor here. But I think it is time for people that spent eight hours a day on the internet and people who make the internet to think critically about this stuff. It is an ecosystem. It does have ramifications for people's lives. Hey, we won! The internet took over the universe! That was what we all wanted. [Jen laughs]
Jen
So what are we going to do with the universe now that we run it?
Brett
It's like Daenerys in Game of Thrones. Now that we're ruling, we have more responsibilities.
Jen

No spoilers. I haven't watched it all yet. [Laughs]

Let's talk about the good stuff that's happening. I feel like we're starting to see pushback from some companies that have power to help change things. Apple has announced OS 9 content blocker APIs. Please correct any inaccuracy. People who make apps for the new operating system that's coming out in the next couple of months can tap into some things that will block a lot of these ad networks and shut them down and make them not be around. Ghostery is a tool that a lot of people use. There are a bunch of different tools that you can use. All of the browsers have a private window. If you want to make the extra effort to get into a separate tab or window or mode when you're using a browser on your computer. That blocks some stuff, I don't know that it blocks all of it. Mozilla has been up to some stuff around content tracking blocking... that's not the word. What's the word?

Brett

There are beta versions of Firefox right now where there is tracking protection that users can turn on. Most people think about the private mode on their browser as when your browsing history isn't recorded, so you can look at stuff online. But this is more of a true private browsing mode that blocks those ad networks that we discussed earlier or other ways to record who you are.

I think all of these developments are really positive. I think there is a market for privacy that is emerging. That is awesome. Those four forces that we talked about, sometimes you need a market for something before the social norms are going to catch up. Or vice versa. You need social norms, for people to say, "Hey, I'd like a little bit of privacy." That creates market that people can build products for. Once there's enough of that market, maybe laws will change. That's all good.

What concerns me is that privacy becomes a luxury good. There's one version of the web that everybody else sees and it's craptastic. There's a version that you and I might see because we're elite programmers or we can afford to pay $10 a month. We're like, "You know what? Forget it. I'm going to pay $10 a month for my internet and I don't want to see any ads and I don't want anybody to know who I am. I'm willing to pay for that." And I am willing to pay for that. But we have to make sure that there is not a two tiered internet. You check your privacy at the door if you can't afford it. I think that's something that we have to make sure we don't build.

Jen

I think it's awesome that we're starting to see these tools come out. I hope they become so popular that it really puts a lot of pressure on everybody else to come out with the same tools. There's going to be a tremendous amount of pushback from the advertising networks as well.

Honestly, this is something I'm talking about as I speak at conferences. I think the ad networks are going to freak out in the next six months. I think they're going to have to redefine what they're doing. I think that could really help. Especially when it comes to layout and web design, but also thinking about the topics that we're talking about today. We may be able to influence what they're doing. To say, "You can serve us ads but you can't collect this kind of data. This kind of data is cool, this kind of data is not cool." Perhaps. If they're going to have to re-do everything they're doing anyway, because all of what they're doing gets blocked.

Brett
Or it crashes. The amount of people that are clicking on these ads is just getting smaller and smaller and smaller every day. It could be setting itself up for a dot com crash that makes the last one seem like a blip. It could be that this entire industry is building itself on a house of cards and all of a sudden, nobody is going to be willing to pay for these ads. Then what happens? I think that's something. It's not best practice to support the web on one business model. We ought to think about other ones. There are encouraging signs with people willing to pay for Netflix. I know this is unpopular, but paying for publications. Maybe other models emerging.
Jen
Thanks for being on the show.
Brett
Thank you! We hardly talked about the doc at all. We go into all of this kind of stuff in the series. We try to do it in a way that makes it hit home for people. It's a big topic. There's lots of angles.
Jen
I highly recommend it. It's definitely something that everybody can watch and listen to and have created for them. It's not just for folks who are really into technology. It's something that I think everybody should take a look at. With visuals, which a podcast doesn't have. And with proper nouns.
Brett
And GIFs!
Jen
With GIFs! Animated GIFs. Bonus.
Brett
Thanks so much.
Jen

Yeah! Everybody can check out the show notes at thewebahead.net/107. To get the link to the documentary and other stuff that Brett is up to.

I think we should all keep an eye out for what happens, literally in the next six months. I think we're going to see a lot of stuff shift very quickly in this whole conversation. I hope we're able to have a complicated, nuanced, sometimes painful conversation, and not gloss over it and try to go back to business as usual. I think business as usual is not working. Enough people are alarmed about this. Enough of the browser makers are actually doing something at the moment that I do think there's a chance for us to make headway on this issue. Thanks for coming and talking to us about it.

Brett
Thank you, Jen! It was a blast.
Jen
Cool. Thanks everybody for listening and we'll be back soon.

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