Privacy: The evolving meaning of a single word for our networked news and information economy

Privacy: The evolving meaning of a single word for our networked news and information economy

Privacy. It’s hard to think of another word that is simultaneously at the center of journalism, technology and Internet policy.

  • Privacy is increasingly thought of broadly, and encompasses trust and networks.
  • It’s a big story now, involving the White House, Edward Snowden, data breaches and research.
  • Balancing identity, marketing and privacy is a quagmire for the advertising industry.
  • There may be opportunities and a role for news organizations.

The broadening meaning of ‘privacy’

For nearly a century, most people thought of privacy in terms of blocking yourself off from unwanted scrutiny. But networked technology has introduced a new meaning — the right, or ability, to negotiate the commercial value of one’s data profiles.

In 1890, Louis Brandeis, a young legal scholar later to join the U.S. Supreme Court, termed it “the right to be left alone” — to be free of what came to be called invasions of privacy. What became a common law right of privacy sometimes clashed with what journalists term the “public’s right to know.”

But by 1967, Columbia University law professor Alan F. Westin took privacy into a new zone, describing it more in terms of sharing data, not modulating isolation. In his influential book “Privacy and Freedom,” he defined privacy as a right of individuals, groups or institutions “to control, edit, manage, and delete information about them[selves] and decide when, how, and to what extent information is communicated to others.” 

“This concept became the cornerstone of our modern right to privacy,” Marc Rotenberg told The New York Times after Westin’s death in 2013.The executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., Rotenberg added, “Part of ‘Privacy and Freedom’ is the argument that privacy enablesfreedom.”

For the millennial generation, privacy has become a far more complicated concept than the notions of rights-based privacy invasion that dominated law and regulation during the 20th century. That’s the view of Boise State University professor Seth Ashley. “In this century, privacy is negotiated — among individuals and institutions — for different goods and services,” Ashley wrote in a 2009 Ph.D. thesis while at the University of Missouri.

For the millennial generation, privacy has become a far more complicated concept than the notions of rights-based privacy invasion that dominated law and regulation during the 20th century.

The systems already in place are driven largely in the interests of marketers, not the public. “A far-reaching surveillance system is at the heart of the new media ecosystem,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told attendees of a 2011 National Conference for Media Reform session in Boston. “It’s your identity that’s for sale in 20 milliseconds to the highest bidder.”

“People don’t exist on the Internet,” observes Paul Trevithick, an MIT-trained engineer and serial entrepreneur. He has spent much of the last decade working largely unsuccessfully on ways for consumers to manage their online identities. “You have no digital identity. The only person who doesn’t have information about you is you. You are the only person who doesn’t have digital agency [or control].”

When it comes to privacy and the Web, most of us may feel presented with a Hobson’s Choice, best expressed by Michael Price, counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school. “You can either use all of these really nifty new pieces of technology that you bought and paid for, or you can have your privacy,” he said in an interview with public radio’s “The TakeAway” in February 2015. “But right now, it doesn’t seem like we can have it both ways. That’s what has to change.”

“Being private doesn’t mean not sharing anything — it means being in control of what you share, to whom and when,” British privacy entrepreneur Julian Ranger wrote in an exchange on the Harvard Berkman Center mailing list for its Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) project. “This is important as sharing is the grease to the future economy — combining different data sets that I share will enable radically new services and experiences that I have yet to even think of. … So, I propose we define Digital Privacy as the ‘ability to control your personal data, including who you share it with, when and for what purpose.’ ” The idea of Project VRM is to create a system for customers to control their relationship with vendors, rather than the other way around.

Silicon Valley moguls such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who depend on advertising, say the public should have no expectation of privacy in Westin’s sense. But some entrepreneurs disagree, believing it’s time for the public — with the help of government — to take control of personal data profiles from advertising and commercial interests. At the conclusion of this report, we’ll ask: Should news organizations help?

A big story, involving the White House

If you accept Westin’s definition, then President Obama was talking about privacy on Feb. 13 at Stanford University. Interviewed on camera by Re/Code’s Kara Swisher, he declared: “I think you own your data, I think I own my data. I think we own our health-care data, I think we own our financial data. I think this is an area where, ironically, sometimes I also have tensions with Silicon Valley — because folks are quite keen on talking about government intrusion. But some of the commercial models that are set up obviously are fairly intrusive, as well.”

The Obama White House ignited debate over online privacy on Feb. 27 by releasing its discussion draft of a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2015.” The 24-page proposal was immediately criticized from almost all sides. Fourteen consumer groups said Obama’s proposal would require the Federal Trade Commission to endorse industry self-regulation and hamper its powers in the privacy arena. Conservative analysts, however, said the proposal had the potential to impose bureaucracy on tech innovation, hindering competitiveness.  Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced an alternate proposal on March 5.

In January 2015, an article in the journal Science, part of a special section on digital privacy, raised concerns about the ability of marketers to pierce anonymity of shoppers by connecting anonymous credit-card transaction records with other data. Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless decided to give its mobile users the ability to “opt-out” of tracking by a new form of digital “perma-cookie” Verizon had quietly implemented. AT&T took similar action earlier. The tracking features were considered a privacy threat.

Well before the Edward Snowden revelations and recurring stories of commercial data breaches of 2013 and 2014, privacy had been a simmering policy and research issue:

  • In March 2012, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued voluntary suggestions calling for companies to (1) build consumer privacy protections — security, limited collection and retention and data-accuracy checks — into all services, (2) adopt “do-not-track” mechanisms and disclosure about information-sharing practices and (3) provide consumers access to data about them.
  • The White House has been talking about consumer privacy for at least three years, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and its chairman are said to have it high on its agenda. Until now, efforts at voluntary privacy protection appear somnolent. Obama is now said to be preparing to push a Personal Data Notification and Protection Act.
  • In a Pew Research Center survey made public Nov. 11, 91 percent of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies, 88 percent similarly say it would be difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online and 80 percent of those who use social-networking sites are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share. (See additional survey highlights here.)

Advertising quagmire — balancing identity, marketing, privacy

Is a backlash about the commercial use of our private data building?

Hundreds of small, little-known companies now operate technologies that track the digital movements of users across the Web and mobile services, aggregate the activity and feed it to advertisers and their agents in order to target advertisements to your presumed interests and location.

In the last two years, the trading of data has escalated among advertisers and technology companies, according to the book “Targeted: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Advertising and the Way Companies Reach Consumers” by Hearst Corp. executive Mike Smith. “People should be able to find out if they are being tracked and what information companies are holding about them, and they should be able to stop companies tracking them if they want,” Smith writes.

The Economist anonymously editorialized about the topic in the introduction to a news special report in September 2014 titled “Stalkers, Inc.” It declared: “Surveillance is the advertising industry’s new business model.”

Within the advertising and technology industries, some solutions are brewing:

  • A nonprofit consortium of 20 independent advertising technology companies has formed DigiTrust LLC and says it hopes to create post-cookie identity technology “that will improve consumer privacy, reduce pixels on publishers’ pages and allow third parties to provide rich, personalized experiences across the Web.” As DigiTrust sees it, there are so many third-party advertising tracking cookies on publisher websites that they are slowing down website response times, angering both users and publishers. The idea is to come up with a single universal identifier for Web users — or at least their device — that all advertisers, ad platforms and networks could read and work with.
  • In Bellevue, Washington, former Microsoft Inc. executive Craig Spiezle helped form the Online Trust Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit backed by Microsoft, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Verisign, Constant Contact, Symantec, Publishers Clearing House, American Greetings, comScore and other technology and marketing — whoops in editing, the link disappeared companies. Its mission is “to enhance online trust and user empowerment” and protect users’ security, privacy and identity. OTA supports collaborative public-private partnerships, benchmark reporting, meaningful self-regulation and data stewardship. “We represent businesses that want to do the right thing and consumers who want a more safe experience,” says Spiezle. There is lots of room for improving trust in the advertising world, he says. The voluntary “do not track” initiative is a failure, because few advertisers are respecting it. “Users are setting it, but no one is honoring it.” Former FCC official Fred Campbell agreed in a December 2014 New York Times op-ed.

An opportunity and role for news organizations?

There will eventually be a need for a sort of overall information-protection agency to arbitrate the use of user identity information, author Julia Angwin wrote in her 2013 book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Angwin, who reported on advertising technology and privacy for The Wall Street Journal before joining the nonprofit ProPublica, believes that adopting a privacy-protecting role for the public could help the news industry regain its footing.

“All of this behavioral ad tracking is what destroyed the news industry,” she said in an RJI interview. “Because it used to be that you sold your audience but now your audience can be found somewhere else more cheaply and nobody wants to buy your audience. So now, news and privacy are actually aligned and bringing those back into alignment should, I think, be achieved by a nonprofit because you have the trust. It is great to start off with a value proposition that is saleable — which is being the good guys.”

RJI’s 2011 report, “From Paper to Persona: Managing Privacy and Information Overload; Sustaining Journalism in the Attention Age,” and the reactions it drew, argued that news organizations should become stewards and curators of individual user’s ‘persona’ and information needs; earning subscription and transaction fees by doing so. It argued the best way to assure such a neutral network is for it to be created by a non-stock, public-benefit organization. (Learn about former Reuters executive John Taysom’s idea for industry collaboration here.)

If news organizations are to successfully compete for advertising dollars, they will have to access and create more detailed portraits of their users, experts say.

Before networked technology, and the ability to measure and aggregate individual consumer actions, newspapers and broadcasters knew only basic information about their individualsubscribers or viewers. Now, advertisers expect detailed knowledge of the interests and actions of ever-finer consumer “segments.”

If news organizations are to successfully compete for advertising dollars, they will have to access and create more detailed portraits of their users, experts say.

David Gehring, a former Google Inc. executive who in August became The Guardian U.K.’s global relationships point person in Silicon Valley, has ideas about what news organizations must do to compete. “First, there has to be a normalized data schema for user information that can be shared through some kind of normalized utility infrastructure,” says Gehring. “ Right now we don’t have a normalized way of trading user data.”

Gehring, and others, believe publishers need more demographic information to sell ads against the big platform companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Yahoo. His theory is that new laws would give publishers the chance to adopt a role helping the public manage their private personal data, in exchange for having some ability to share any economic benefits the public receives. Lacking solid user information or an ad network, publishers have next to nothing to compete with now, he fears.

As a user, your choice has been to click-and-agree to an end-user privacy agreement or not use the service. Gradually, these companies are adding some privacy options. And there are a few cases where the public can be paid for sharing their Web-usage details. Gehring believes it will take federal law — or at least the threat of it — to tip the scales in favor of individual data control.

“We need to create a shaming environment,” says Gehring. He believes a lobbying organization supported by the news industry and others should propose legislation that creates data-privacy and control rights for the public. “And once it is passed,” he says. “Then all sorts of economic opportunities present themselves. There is no economic opportunity for a company to manage consumer data until there is a regulatory action.”

Perhaps the U.S. news industry, spurred by federal legislation, could create a new business for itself by helping transparently manage individual user’s privacy.

Perhaps the U.S. news industry, spurred by federal legislation, could create a new business for itself by helping transparently manage individual user’s privacy.

For a new approach to personal data to catch on, media participants would have to be convinced that their market positions will be enhanced — not eroded — in order to participate, says Linda Fantin of American Public Media. Fantin heads APM’s Public Insight Network, which collects information about individual listeners’ expertise for use solely by newsrooms in sourcing the news.

“What if we were to test a new business model of user “persona” management? Is the ability to manage my profile the value proposition?” asks Fantin. “Could public media … be the vehicle by which an alternative to Facebook Connect emerges that is built around trust — and increases the trust people have in public media?”

Taking user privacy seriously is a key aim of an initiative backed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, traditionally the United States’ largest philanthropic backer of journalism. In mid-2014, Knight announced a multimillion dollar grant to the Mozilla Foundation — the entity responsible for maintaining the Firefox Web browser — to allow it to extend the work of the In a nearly unprecedented collaboration between The New York Times and The Washington Post, the project is building a way for public users to see and link all their commenting activity across multiple websites — a persistent identity tool.

At its core, the New York Times-Washingon Post project is about building an identity ecosystem for the Web and for public users to compete with Facebook Connect, says Dan Sinker, project director and a Columbia College of Chicago instructor. He says it will work like Twitter or Facebook to provide a network login across multiple news sites.

“We want to have systems that are actually open but also take user data and user privacy seriously and give the user control of that information,” Sinker said in the RJI interview. “That’s the big problem with Facebook Connect — Facebook does not have a great deal of respect for the consumer and the user has almost no control over what Facebook does with the data — Facebook has all the control.

With control as a goal, the first priority may be transparency. In his Feb. 13 interview with Kara Swisher, President Obama put it this way:

“So, I think part of the answer here is just people knowing ahead of time what’s going on. People knowing how their data’s being used. Much greater transparency in terms of its potential for migrating over into some sales-and-marketing scheme of somebody else.”

Related links

This story was updated on March 10.

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