The Internet's Original Sin

Finally, even attempts to mitigate advertising’s downsides have consequences. To compensate us for our experience of continual surveillance, many websites promise personalization of content to match our interests and tastes. (By giving platforms information on our interests, we are, of course, generating more ad targeting information.)

This personalization means that two readers of The New York Times may seen a very different picture of the world, and that two users of Facebook certainly do, shaped both by our choice of friends and by Facebook’s algorithms. Research suggests that these personalized sites may lead us into echo chambers, filter bubbles, or other forms of ideological isolation that divide us into rival camps that cannot agree on anything, including a set of common facts on which we could build a debate. While many have written on this topic (and I wrote a book on it), few have shown the implications of overpersonalization as well as Gilad Lotan did in this recent analysis of media consumption in Israel and Palestine, where he describes the view participants in the current Gaza war have of the conflict as “personalized propaganda.”

It’s easier to rant about technology than it is to propose solutions. To Cegłowski’s credit, he closes his talk with a set of practical suggestions about limits we might put on the use of digital data by advertisers. He demands that we be given a right to review and delete data companies hold on us, proposes a time limit on how long data can be held and how it can be shared. Implementing these regulations, of course, would require finding a regulator with teeth, and it’s not clear that the Federal Trade Commission would be willing to enforce such constraints on companies that are becoming powerful actors in Washington.

More importantly, Cegłowski offers us a way forward through his own actions. Cegłowski wrote and maintains Pinboard.in, a simple and powerful bookmarking service with an unusual business model. Each user of the service pays a one-time fee, which rises a fraction of a cent with each new user. (When I signed up for Pinboard, it cost $5, and now costs a bit more than $10.) The cost has the benefit of keeping the service spam-free—Metafilter has seen some of the same benefits from their nominal membership fee—and has meant that the service has been profitable since it was launched. Users can upgrade to a $25-per-year version that archives every webpage you bookmark, creating a permanent, searchable archive of your journeys through the web. Cegłowski promises that he will never sell ads on the site and never sell data to third parties, reminding us, “If you’re not paying for your bookmarking, then someone else is, and their interests may not be aligned with yours.”

Pinboard launched in 2009, in part in reaction to changes at Del.icio.us, a beloved bookmarking site started by Joshua Schacter and sold to Yahoo, which slowly ran the site into the ground. Many of Pinboard’s policies can be read as Cegłowski’s attempts to protect himself—and anyone else—from having precious personal data held hostage when a company changes hands. But these principles are also an invitation to think about, and perhaps to create, a web that works very differently.

The web is celebrating a 25th anniversary, but that celebrates the invention of the HTTP protocol by Tim Berners Lee. In practical terms, the web as we know it is less than 20 years old. Many of the services we rely on, like Twitter, are less than 10 years old. Yet it’s often hard to imagine making deep, structural changes to the web. It’s easy to assume that aspects of the web’s architecture and business model are inevitable: We will inexorably move towards a web that is centralized, ad supported and heavily surveilled.

Part of the celebration of the Web’s 25th anniversary is The Web We Want, a campaign to open the dialog about how the Internet is structured and governed to voices from around the globe. I think it’s at least as important to consider how we want the web to make money, as these decisions have powerful unintended consequences.

One simple way forward is to charge for services and protect users’ privacy, as Cegłowski is doing with Pinboard. What would it cost to subscribe to an ad-free Facebook and receive a verifiable promise that your content and metadata wasn’t being resold, and would be deleted within a fixed window? Google now does this with its enterprise and educational email tools, promising paying users that their email is now exempt from the creepy content-based ad targeting that characterizes its free product. Would Google allow users to may a modest subscription fee and opt out of this obvious, heavy-handed surveillance?

* *  *

Users will pay for services that they love. Reddit, the lively recommendation and discussion community, sells Reddit Gold subscriptions that give users special privileges and the ability to turn off ads. (Those ads, by the way, are a lot less intrusive than those on most social networks.) Reddit advertises Gold both by detailing benefits of membership and setting “daily goals” for gold subscriptions, telling readers, “We believe the more reddit can be user-supported, the freer we will be to make reddit the best it can be.” A culture has developed of giving a month’s Reddit gold membership to someone whose comments or content you’ve especially appreciated, rewarding both the individual and the community as a whole. It would be interesting to see if Facebook could support a premium model. I suspect many people use Facebook because they feel they have to, not because they love it, as they love Reddit.

Presented by

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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