Aren’t we looking at this whole privacy thing from the wrong angle?

One of the hot topics on the web currently is privacy. What can companies like Google or Facebook store from us when it comes to personal data? Can they store anything at all? Do we want Google to be taking pictures of our streets? Should we ban cookies all together? All questions asked by different people, organizations and even regulation officers.

A lot of regulations are taking place, Google is moving towards more privacy options and even governments are interfering. But it looks like we might be overdoing it. And we should be looking at a different angle of it all.

Google taking steps

Google seems to have noticed that being ‘right’ when it comes to privacy has nothing to do with what exactly is being stored, but has everything to do with the public eye on this matter. They have begun to become a privacy-sensitive company, at least for the public eye.

Last week Google agreed to a settlement with the FTC after some big mistakes they made with Google Buzz, which didn’t live up to any privacy regulation at all so it seems. Google now has agreed that it will be submitted to ‘privacy audits’ every two years. A huge step for Google off course, who never lets anybody inside their ‘private matters’ themselves. And regulation officers think they have found another way of keeping an eye on privacy matters. At the same time in Europe they are looking at options to give people the “right to be forgotten” on the web, aka you can delete all your private data.

Looks nice, all the privacy matters, really re-assuring. But the question arrises: are we looking at this privacy thing in the right way? Shouldn’t we be taking a totally different approach?

What if we had full privacy?

Imagine we had full privacy. So we could really turn everything which even remotely touches our privacy options off. Nobody could track what we are doing, everybody would throw away any data right away and companies like Google and Facebook would store nothing. What would happen?

For starters the web would be a lot more boring and a lot more general. One of Google’s key-angles right now (and not just Googles, also Facebook, Bing and all other major providers) is personalization. The things you are seeing are tailored to fit your needs, your wishes and your ‘style’.

This tailoring is made possible by data. Companies like Google and Facebook tailor the results based on your web history. Do you have small kids? Chances are you are looking at kids stuff on the web. The ad you see about kids stuff wouldn’t bother you at all at that time. But what if you don’t have kids. Do you want to see a big pop-up ad for diapers? Probably not. But that would be the way advertisers would work if they couldn’t target specific kind of users. It would be back to the old days of advertising, simply throwing things out there, hoping there would be somebody who would pick it up.

Not a good thing for advertisers, but also not a good thing for users. I still remember the enormous amounts of complaints about irrelevant ads on websites. That would all come back. And that is just advertising. If no data could be stored it would affect all kind of different things we do on the web. We could have no Facebook for example, because storing who your friends are wouldn’t be allowed.


Another thing what would happen is that innovation would stop. Many tools, many features and many products are based on what people are doing on the web. By tracking what people do new features are being made. A very simple example of that is Google Suggest. No word would be stored, so Google would have no idea of what people were used to be searching on, a feature like Google Suggest simply couldn’t be made.

Other products specifically for phones would not be able to exist because of the fact that they do things with location based techniques. If they can’t figure out where you are, there is no use. Layar or Goggles, it just wouldn’t exist.

Off course all this will never happen, we will not go that far that data wouldn’t get stored at all. But it does seem to be at least the direction we are taking right now. Privacy regulations make sure that product makers are being held back. They are the ones which have to work with the regulations. And rightfully so, they should be thinking about what they store and what they don’t store, and they should be watched so that they won’t sell that data to someone you didn’t expect to (Facebook?).

What we should do

However, there is one angle which in my opinion is highly undervalued at the moment. And that is the user itself. It is the user who puts their own data online, it is the user which should know and realize more.

I believe that too many users just don’t know what is stored and what is not. Our job should be to really help them understand the consequences of privacy matters on the web.

Are you drunk? Don’t tweet it if you don’t want it to be showing up on the screen of your potential boss. Don’t blame Google when it shows up on a search for your name. Be careful with what you post on Facebook and think about consequences when you decide to log in to a specific service.

Users should be more aware of what they are doing. We should help them with that, teach them how to swim to web’s waters. So not just focus on the regulations, focus on the education too.

Bas van den Beld

About Bas van den Beld

Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.

9 thoughts on “Aren’t we looking at this whole privacy thing from the wrong angle?

  1. I think it’s a bit too easy to blame our privacy woes on the ignorance of the user. First of all, with new services it’s not immediately apparent what the impact on privacy is going to be – that’s a lesson we learn the hard way along the way. Second, privacy policies tend to be inscrutable documents that no one should be forced to read.

    I think we are fully entitled to lay the burden at corporations like Google and Facebook. They have a moral – if not legal – responsibility to behave in an ethical way and not abuse the information they gather from their users. That means they have to impose restrictions upon themselves and not blindly pursue profit and revenue at the expense of user privacy and other morals.

    Of course since corporations have a legal obligation to maximise profits at any expense (and morals are entirely optional there), the only way they can be forced to play nice is via legislation. So I for one am firmly in favour of extra laws to be put in place to safeguard online privacy.

    The added benefit of these laws is that governments also have to adhere to them. And governments are among the worst trespassers when it comes to abusing private data.

    Also, the argument that data protection laws stifles innovation is a flawed one based on a false premise. Innovation does not depend on limitless access to user data. It depends on creative thinking and the inexorable advance of technology. Neither of which will come to an end with stronger privacy laws.

  2. Haha Google cares about user privacy… mmm ever notice when you log into your Google account the Stay connected is auto ticked…. for obvious reasons it’s not good network privacy policy. User should have to take the action of ticking the box that makes it optin not optout. Picky but to me is a clear indication of how much they value user privacy… user be aware.

  3. Hi Barry (and Justin 😉 ),

    I think we may agree more than it seems. I am not saying that we should simply let Facebook and Google do what they want, but I do believe that the focus lies too much on the regulations and too little on learning the users what might be possible consequences of online behavior. I do feel that both Google and Facebook should play a major role in this by the way. I agree that they have an ethical moral and I am one of the biggest criticizers of Facebook when it comes to privacy.

    My point is really that I believe that we, as in the marketers but also Facebook and Google, should educate people so they know possible consequences. Online does mean we can’t live our lives as anonymous as we were used to. It is not or do regulations or do education, it is doing both.

    1. Unfortunately people, generally speaking, are fairly immune to education and would much rather continue to swallow hype and disinformation wholesale rather than make the effort to form an independent, critical thought in their puny little brains.

      I could fill entire books listing examples of the victory of deliberate and wilful ignorance when confronted with abundant fact, truth, and criticism. But suffice to say that people, on the whole, are either too stupid or just don’t give a sh!t.

      That means it’s up to corporations to behave nicely, and we all know that’s exceptionally unlikely. So that automatically invokes option 3: government regulation.

      I know, it’s far from ideal. Governments, as human constructs, are terribly flawed and ineffective – not to mention deep in the pockets of their corporate sponsors, in many cases. But unless the global apocalypse occurs in the next few years or so (and in case you hadn’t noticed, I sincerely hope it does) it’s the best instrument we have.

      1. The ideal is to break the privacy paradigm, make every information public – including companies’ information – and trace it’s use.

  4. “What should we do” – I agree that user education is the key. Not all information gathering is bad. Opt-in/opt-out legislation will likely just mucky the waters but we’ll see. I think there is a great value in incentivizing the consumer to provide their information for profit. Companies like and have a good model that allow a user to have control over data shared and a monetary incentive to do so.

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