SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Where 2.0 -- One question that is always on my mind when we talk about technologies that involve shelling out more of our personal data: How much are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of using the newest tools?
In reality, we have to share data to use everything that exists on the Web today, since all of the free services we know and love live on ad-based revenues, prayers, and detailed information about their users. We may not see a monetary value attached to anything anymore, but that's because we're paying for search engines, widgets, social networking sites, digital content, etc., with our data instead of our cash.
But what happens when the data we've agreed to hand over starts to get used in ways we didn't anticipate?
The point was raised here yesterday in a discussion between Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media Inc. , and Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch , when Arrington pointed out that he's becoming fearful of Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) -- a company he used to defend on the privacy front.
"We're all sort of voluntarily walking into this potential disaster where our data... one, we can't get it out of Facebook yet, and two, it's sent all over the place," said Arrington.
A disaster, indeed. That is, of course, if users signed up for Facebook expecting the site would always put protecting their data over earning revenue. While that should never be the expectation, it's easy to be fooled by the voodoo. Companies like Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) speak user privacy, but behind the scenes they're dishing out data for profit's sake.
Sticking up for Facebook, O'Reilly pointed out that the company is trying to build user value, and as long as Facebook can present it that way, it will get away with exposing users in ways they didn't expect. O'Reilly pointed to Facebook's Newsfeeds as an example of this, noting that this addition caused an uproar over privacy until users realized they liked them.
Newsfeeds are just one example, and while it's unclear if this value-trumps-privacy-loss method is necessarily foolproof, several other people harped on this new mantra throughout the day.
In speaking about some new, potentially invasive advertising methods that come along with location-based mobile services, Sam Altman, founder and CEO of Loopt Inc. , for example, told Internet Evolution that he anticipates some initial backlash, but ultimately, he said, "As long as we can deliver real value to users, they'll stay."
Further echoing that point was Blaise Agüera y Arcas, architect of Bing Maps, who, in speaking about complaints over the privacy implications of street-view mapping, said these won't continue to be prevalent issues if the product is worth it. "What we should be giving back is something of much greater value," he said.
That sounds like a nice theory, but I'm skeptical about throwing around this phrase "value" when not all people value the same things to the same degrees. With opt-in services like Facebook or Loopt, if users don't want the "value" they don't have to sacrifice the data. But with Google and Microsoft's street-mapping technologies, that "value" is coming to the user unless he or she moves to a different plane of the universe (and, even then, it's just a matter of time...).
As we continue to adopt technologies that share our locations with the greater Internet, and participate on sites like Facebook, which share data out with the rest of the Web, it seems the new industry cop-out is: "Distract the users with great value, and they won't notice the privacy invasion." But the question should really be posed to the users: How much are you willing to give up in exchange for "value"?
Based on the way our industry leaders are speaking, I'm not sure it really matters.
— Nicole Ferraro, Site Editor, Internet Evolution