Tuesday Apr 24, 2007

When Does the Real Privacy Backlash Arrive?

Big Brother is coming. And we're welcoming him. He's hiding in our email, our web searches, the banner ads that annoy us, and our kids' MySpace pages (that frighten us). But most of all, he's hiding in plain sight. You see, Big Brother isn't coming from secret government agencies shrouded behind dark tinted windows. He's coming from colorful buildings filled with bright young programmers who have whimsical company logos on their business cards.

I've written about this before. And now Google's agreement to purchase DoubleClick has gotten more people thinking about the company's privacy impact. Why? Because Google is gaining an even larger window into everyone's online activities. Rich Tehrani estimated that if the acquisition is completed, Google could end up with "access to the behavioral information of over 90% of web users".

Tehrani also provides examples of just how this data can be used, such as quoting a Yahoo executive who brags that his company can now "predict with 75% certainty which of the 300,000 monthly visitors to Yahoo! Autos will purchase a new car within the next three months."

So a handful of web giants are amassing thorough records of our online activities and learning how to turn that data into a full picture of our behavior (and likely future behavior). Scary stuff. Still, it doesn't feel like the general public really cares. Yet.

We haven't yet seen real public outcry and backlash against these privacy threats. Part of that is because the companies involved have good reputations (and deservedly so, in most cases). Part is because most of us assume that only "bad people" with something to hide have reason to worry about privacy. But these are just delaying the backlash, not preventing it.

At some point, a catalyst will grab the attention of the general public. It could be a security breach at one of the web giants, exposing so much information about so many people that we can't ignore it. Or it could be the story of how lost privacy has ruined one individual's life, told in such a way that we can't forget it.

I don't know what that event will be or when it will happen. But I do know it's coming. The giants of the Internet are on a collision course with the privacy of the little guy. And when it happens, it won't just be the privacy watchdogs that are complaining.

Thursday Feb 15, 2007

Why is the Digg Community So Sensitive to Competition?

The Digg community is once again lashing out at a "shameless rip-off" site. This time their target is Yahoo, which has (in their own words) added "Digg-style voting" to their suggestion boards. There was a similar reaction months ago when Netscape.com re-launched itself as a voter-driven news portal.

Why do so many Digg users have a hair-trigger response against anyone who builds on Digg's ideas? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation with due credit (as Yahoo provided in their blog post) is pretty-well beyond reproach.

Yes, Yahoo and Netscape took ideas from Digg. That's the way the world works. We build off of each others' ideas. If you can't accept that, you need to strip naked and move to some deserted cave. Every technology and idea we use today is a derivative of something which came before it.

If you think the "good guys" of the tech world sprang up from great new ideas, you're wrong (at least partially). The ideas may have been great, but they were never entirely new. So before you launch another campaign against a "shameless rip-off" of Digg, consider going after:

  • Linux, which shamelessly stole the design of UNIX.
  • Apache, which shamelessly stole the idea of serving web pages from Tim Berners-Lee.
  • Firefox, which shamelessly stole the idea of a graphical web browser from NCSA Mosaic.
  • Digg itself, which shamelessly stole the concept of voting from the ancient Greeks.
  • The paranoid members of the Digg community, who shamelessly stole the ideas of intolerance and isolationism from countless ancient tribes.

Yes, they're ridiculous examples. It's a ridiculous discussion. Building on the ideas of others is a fact of life. It's also a fact of Web 2.0, and it's time for lagging members of the Digg community to accept it.




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