The Privacy Paradox: When Big Tech Is Good On Privacy, They're Attacked As Being Bad For Competition

from the tradeoffs.-it's-all-tradeoffs dept

For many years I’ve tried to point out that no one seems to have a very good conceptual framework for “privacy.” Many people act as if privacy is a concrete thing — and that we want our information kept private. But as I’ve pointed out for years, that doesn’t make much sense. Privacy is a set of tradeoffs. It’s information about ourselves, that we often offer up freely, if we feel that the tradeoff is worth it. And, related to that, there’s a big question about who is controlling the data in question. On top of that, things get confusing when we consider just who is controlling what data. If we’re controlling our own data, then we have some degree of autonomy over our privacy trade-offs. But when we hand that data off to a third party, then they have much more say over our privacy — and even if they agree to “lock down and protect” that data, the end result might not be what we want. For one, we’re giving those companies more power of our data than we, ourselves have. And that can be a problem!

Because of this, privacy questions are often highly contextual — and often conflict with other issues. For example, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook was yelled at over and over again regarding its poor data privacy efforts — leading the company to say “okay, fine we’ll lock down your data, and just keep it for ourselves.” Which is a totally reasonable response to the complaints that “Oh, Facebook leaked our data.” But, of course, the end result of that is… worse. Then we’ve handed Facebook even more control over our data, and given significantly less ability for competitors to come along. That’s not good!

There’s a similar issue with advertising and privacy, that we discussed just last month. Google clarified its plans to block 3rd party cookies. In many ways, this is good for privacy. 3rd party cookies are often abused in creepy ways to track people. So it’s good that Google won’t support them (Firefox and Safari already made this move earlier). But lots of people then vocally complained that this would only give more power to Google, because it can deal with the lack of data, while competitive (smaller) advertising firms cannot.

These issues are often in conflict — and many of the big tech critics out there don’t want to recognize that. In fact, it lets them attack these companies no matter what they do. If they do something that’s good for privacy, but bad for competition, focus on how it’s bad for competition. If they do something that’s good for competition, but bad for privacy, focus on how it’s bad for privacy.

A recent article in Wired by Gilad Edelman highlights this tension in the antitrust context. Noting that in the big antitrust fights against Facebook and against Google, the two companies are being attacked in very different ways: one for being more protective of private data in a way that gives the company more power, and one for violating privacy of users.

HERE?S SOMETHING TO puzzle over. In December, the Federal Trade Commission and a coalition of states filed antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, alleging that as the company grew more dominant and faced less competition, it reneged on its promises to protect user privacy. In March, a different coalition of states, led by Texas, accused Google of exclusionary conduct related to its plan to get rid of third-party cookies in Chrome. In other words, one tech giant is being sued for weakening privacy protections while another is being sued for strengthening them. How can this be?

Edelman tries to solve this seeming paradox by suggesting that there might be a way to sort out the actual intent of these actions:

Maybe, then, the right way to think about what should happen when the privacy and competition dials diverge is to ask whether a company is cutting off access to personal data that it intends to keep using itself. That could help distinguish between a case like the Privacy Sandbox, on the one hand, and Apple?s App Tracking Transparency framework, on the other. Apple?s new policy will force all iPhone app developers to ask for permission before tracking users. That is expected to hurt companies that make money by tracking users across the web, most notably Facebook, which has reportedly considered filing an antitrust lawsuit to block the change. But since Apple doesn?t make its money by selling personalized ads based on surveilling user behavior, it?s harder to argue that it is hoarding access to user data for its own purposes. That makes the tension between privacy and competition easier to resolve.

Not that Apple will always come out ahead in this analysis. Contrast the Facebook spat with the ongoing feud between Apple and Tile, which sells tracking technology to help users find lost stuff and thus competes with Apple?s own ?Find My? software. According to Tile, Apple has discriminated against the company by prohibiting certain practices, like background location tracking, that it requires to function. Apple says the rules are meant to protect user privacy. If it were to sue, Tile might have a stronger case than Facebook because its product competes more directly with Apple.

That’s an interesting idea — but I’m not sure it would be so easy in practice. There are so many competing interests at play, and so many actions may seem good for one particular concern, but less good for others.

Obviously, I’ve long been an advocate of simply removing much of the data from these large companies’ control entirely — via a system of protocols that moves control out to the end users. But in most versions of that system, most users are going to eventually entrust that data to some third party company, and in some ways that puts us back where we’re started. My hope is that such a world would end up with more neutral 3rd party “data banks” and you could even suggest that there could be an information fiduciary model, in which these companies are legally required to act in your best interests.

But, even that model runs into some trouble, and we end up talking about questionable ideas like a DMCA for privacy, which seems like it would be a true horror online.

It would be nice, though, if we could have this kind of debate and conversation in a reasonable manner, rather than everyone jumping immediately to their own corners about who’s evil and who’s good. Every one of these decisions has tradeoffs, and it would be more productive if we could recognize that and debate the relative merits of all of those tradeoffs. But, having nuanced discussions about subjects with no easy answers does not seem to be in fashion these days.

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Companies: facebook, google

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Comments on “The Privacy Paradox: When Big Tech Is Good On Privacy, They're Attacked As Being Bad For Competition”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: FALSE alternative asserted

"via a" MYTHICAL "system of protocols" – A REAL delaying tactic.

Obviously, I’ve long been an advocate of simply removing much of the data from these large companies’ control entirely — via a system of protocols that moves control out to the end users.

A) "Obviously"? This unnecessary word indicates only that you try to hide your real agenda with a visible front.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "A. Stephen Stone", IF you were an actual socialist...

You wouldn’t defend corporations, and you’d ALWAYS want them heavily taxed and regulated.

But you don’t EVER advocate socialist ways, only idiot trouble-making to attack ordinary people. Because you’re a corporatist / Nazi, just like Maz.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You wouldn’t defend corporations

While I do defend corporations in limited specific instances, I generally distrust them. If a corporation were a person, it would likely snap my neck and step over my body without thinking twice if doing so could make more money for that corporation. Brands are not friends, advertising shits in people’s heads, and corporations will murder people for profit if they can — I hold no illusions to the contrary.

you’d ALWAYS want them heavily taxed

I want the government to heavily tax corporations and their executives. A person being a billionaire is unethical; said billionaire not giving back to the general public when they easily can afford to give back, even moreso.

you’d ALWAYS want them heavily … regulated

Regulations are generally fine. Compelling corporations to host speech they don’t want to host — a position for which you’ve directly and explicitly advocated — is not.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: FALSE alternative asserted

Every one of these decisions has tradeoffs, and it would be more productive if we could recognize that and debate the relative merits of all of those tradeoffs.

You’re simply trying to pre-load the factors with your notion of "tradeoffs", with intent that corporations end up getting "data" that have no actual need for, and without limits.

The meat-ax approach to regulation is the only one that has ever, or can ever work for The Public. — This approach includes steeply progressive income taxes so that corps don’t get MORE huge and globalist.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: FALSE alternative asserted

SO I’m IN past the alleged "spam filter", and yet Techdirt is not in least harmed.

WHY have that, then? You don’t get enough comments, even "spam", that is commercial, to take the risk of missing valuable insights. Why inflict this collateral damage on yourself, Techdirt?

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Christenson says:

Re: Re: FALSE alternative asserted

But…techdirt is harmed by all this ad hominem back and forth not discussing actual ideas as to how to balance the actual tensions in the real situation at hand, or even real examples close to your hearts, like Parler or Techdirt.

All of you, flagged by me for inappropriate and wasting everyone’s time.

Mike, open protocols and open sites tend to make data quite public. Groups of people are terrible at keeping secrets.

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Anonymous Coward says:

It's not a "paradox": your views ALWAYS reduce MY privacy.

Your tactic is simply to muddle and confuse, shift the topic to one of your choosing, an alleged "paradox’.

You are a full-blown corporatist, Maz. Your wanted end result is corporations empowered by gov’t to RULE over The Public. Same goal as Hitler / Mussolini / authoritarians, just differing propaganda for this "soft" fascism, actually far less honest, trying to get public acceptance, endless half-true half-good assertions, to sneak it in.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"The use of government power is not communist"

On its own? No. But, our regular fool demands that the means of production be seized and controlled by the government if they don’t "voluntarily" exercise their free speech rights in accordance with the wishes of the controlling party. That’s communism.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Stop me if I’m being inaccurate, comrade."

To be fair the particular brand of political ideology behind most of the alt-right isn’t strictly speaking marxist, even if they’d do better trying to masquerade it as such. Restless94110 gave that all away when he started quoting Goebbels about the modern-day Lügenpresse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Big Data debates invariably revolve around corporate interests. Oh, how horrible it is Facebook isn’t allowed to track people’s phones without permission. Oh, they just have to keep 3rd party cookies enabled so ad peddlers big and small can keep building shadow copies of everyone’s browser histories. This company did that and that company wants to do this. What about what the user wants? Does anyone actually want ad companies to track everything they do?

A lot of the data being collected the average user won’t even know exists. Implied consent to collect it hidden away in the broadly-worded legalese of privacy policies that everybody knows nobody reads. And when some leak or other scandal comes up, government and media alike jump to the question of who should have access to this data and how it should be secured, skipping right over considering whether it should exist at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The thing is, is they just disallowed all the damn tracking, and being that targeted advertising via tracking is largely bunk, everyone could make ad money the traditional way. It would go a long way to reduce the trafficking of data. Then everyone could worry about their credential-type data. And passing that around willy-nilly should have been disallowed before the internet was even thought of.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
crade (profile) says:

The sort of privacy you are talking about is inextricably linked with trust and with discretion. You are always handing your "data" off to a third party any time you need to use it for anything or just mention it to someone. You are trusting them to act appropriately with it, and of course everyone’s definition of appropriately is a little different. Selling it to spammers, etc is a breach of that trust

The problem isn’t privacy, it’s transparency. These problems all rise out of misunderstandings between what people think using facebook means in terms of their data and what it actually means. If people understood exactly what using facebook meant in terms of what would happen to their private data they added, there wouldn’t be an issue, they would either accept that and continue to use facebook or they would rebel and go to the competition or whatever. That understanding isn’t there, so there is no legitimate agreement and people feel like they are being betrayed when their data gets used to rig elections or sold to spammers or to steal their identity or whatever and facebook points to some fine print somewhere.

The "what the hell, thats not even close to right" reactions that people have when they understand what facebook will do with their data and that
the legalese fine print doesn’t line up at all with people’s expectations just need to be moved up front so they can be used to make the decision to stay away from that service, go to a competition they feel is better or accept the compromise with understanding instead of afterward when it’s too late to be helpful.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Gee, if only we over paid a buncha of morons to actually write privacy laws I dunno a decade ago.

Oh noes Chrome blocks these cookies!!
Umm use another browser? They are out there.

But then this is the brain trust who thought that Google is the internet & that we didn’t need laws to punish Equifax for failing even the most BASIC security measures.

We left it to you to fix, & now that you have we’re screaming you did it wrong.

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