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

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

11th April 2011

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.


Written By
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.
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