Kat Krol and Sören Preibusch discuss "effortless privacy negotiations" (pp. 88-91) in the May/June 2015 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy. In doing so, they (inadvertantly) address some of the questions I wondered about in an article for The Social Interface last year — most notably, whether or not people would be willing to pay for services of the sort now provided by advertising, if it meant that they could obtain the services without handing over data to advertisers.
According to the research cited by Krol and Preibusch, most people would not, but a significant number of people would. I think I suspected as much when I wrote my article, but Krol and Preibusch propose a slightly different (but perhaps complementary) explanation for why they wouldn't: most people value the tangible and immediate gain of access to a service more than the nebulous and future risks of handing over private data.
In the same issue of Security & Privacy, Angela Sasse scolds security nerds for "scaring and bullying people into security" (pp. 80-83) with fearsome dialogues intended to warn people of the risks — again, mostly distant and nebulous — that they face in clicking on links that don't meet the approval of the security community. The same might be said of privacy nerds who demand that privacy policies be read and rejected if readers can imagine misuse of the policy.
Whatever the explanation for people who won't pay, those who would pay might wonder: where do I go if I want to search the web or join social media, but I don't want the ads? None of Google, Facebook, or Twitter will take my money!
Krol and Preibusch mention one (experimental) solution from Google, for whom Preibusch works: Google Contributor. According to Contributor's web page, subscribers to the service will see "pixel patterns" or "thank you messages" instead of ads on participating web sites. (This sounds a bit kludgy but I guess it's a start). But the article focuses on negotiation between users and service providers.
I've seen proposals for negotiating privacy settings before, but never found them particularly convincing: why would anyone agree to anything other than handing over the minimum amount of information required to get the job done? Krol and Preibusch identify the point I was missing: the participants need to negotiate not just the privacy settings, but the service they get in return for them. So those who'd rather pay than see targeted ads, for example, could negotiate untargeted service in return for a subscription. (This might not just be about privacy: my main objection to advertising isn't that I'm worried about the data collection involved, it's that I find it irritating.)
The title of Krol and Preibusch's article identifies the obvious weakness in all this negotiation: it takes a lot of effort to both provide and use such a flexible service. Of course reading and understanding current privacy policies requires a fair bit of effort too, which is partly why they remain largely unread and ununderstood. (The other part is that the reader can't do anything about them anyway, for which negotiation might offer some remedy.)
Still, well-designed computer systems can take a lot of the effort out of things that might otherwise be tedious and time-consuming. Krol and Preibusch don't describe any particular solutions; their article is more of a call-to-arms. I don't kow if negotiation is the solution — I'm at least as interested in Google Contributor, which has the advantage of existing — but Krol and Preibusch have at least renewed my interest in something I'd previously dismissed.
Three months ago, I wondered who would stand up for advertising and its role in funding news, entertainment and other things that we think of as being "free". David Glance's Conversation column this week drew a few commenters who are, indeed, prepared to stand up for advertising.
Glance himself wonders if ad-blocking software will kill off on-line advertising as a business model, which he has read to be struggling to be relevant in an article in The Atlantic. That the advertising revenues of Google and others have already survived ten years of ad-blockers leads me to be sceptical of the threat they pose, but here I'm more interested in the comments on the article.
William Ferguson wisely points out that the adherents of ad-blocking need to be careful what they wish for: those ads are what pay for the goodies, and without revenue the goodies cannot continue to be made. He draws specific attention to advertising's support for small-time developers who don't have the fee-charging power of major software development houses. Michael Cahill argues that "the use of adblock software is morally equivalent to any other form of piracy" in that it is effectively taking something without paying the price, and implies that he'd rather have the advertising than have to pay.
(As an aside, Ferguson also notes that "it is extremely rare for anyone to shell out a couple of dollars on a totally unknown product, even with refund periods", which itself says something about the cheapness of software-buyers. I, and I'm sure plenty of other people, routinely pay much more than this to try out a new beer, a new restaurant, or a new holiday experience, so why do we baulk at paying a couple of dollars to try out an app?)
Perhaps it's worth noting that both Ferguson and Cahill are content producers according to their taglines (a software developer and journalist, respectively), while their opponents appear to be content users or at least thinking only about how they can use content. Ferguson and Cahill want to be paid for what they do, and know that they couldn't continue to do it if there wasn't money for it. User-centred critics, on the other hand, assert that it can all be done for nothing, but are conspicuously silent about actually doing it.
While I may have less love for advertising than either Ferguson or Cahill — I usually take the paid version given the choice, and I dread the idea of having to make my living from advertising — we're all of one mind in recognising that art (and software) needs to be resourced in one way or another. My view of apparently-free content isn't even incompatible with theirs: those who live by advertising know all too well that it's not just there out of some perverse desire to annoy users, but in fact an integral part of providing the services we like to call "free".
The discussion between Mike Swinbourne and Peter Wilkin in response to my recent Conversation article on business models for the creative industry reminded me that the excessive profits alleged to be made by powerful industry players is the go-to argument for many critics of copyright. Yet the creative industries are hardly the only ones in which a small number of powerful figures are able to obtain much greater wealth than the average member of society, so are excessive profits in the creative industries really a result of copyright at all, or are they just the usual dynamic of the economic system that we have?
I decided to do some reading on this question, but struggled to find any actual study of this issue or a related one. Every now and again someone mentions the distribution of revenue obtained from the sale of a CD (G. Prem Premkumar's was the best I found) but no one seems to have compiled similar figures for on-line purchases, films or books. Nor does anyone appear to have investigated the overall distribution of revenue amongst artists, publishers, distributors and the rest, which is closer to what I wanted to know. Either my literature search skills have failed me, or I have a project for an economics student looking to become the Thomas Piketty of art.
Whether or not their profits are fair overall, large corporations are intimately involved in the creation and distribution of the art most discussed in debates over copyright and infringement. For all the vitriol directed at major record labels and movie studios, I can only recall one person (in a comment on The Conversation) professing that he'd rather do without their products. For all other critics of the creative industries, there's no question that Game of Thrones, Mad Max IV, The Lego Movie and the rest ought to be available, and it's hard to see how anyone but a large corporation or exceptionally wealthy individual could put together something that requires the many millions of dollars that go into creating such blockbusters.
Shana Ponelis and Johannes Britz, discussing the ethics of copyright infringement, point out that infringers can ease their consciences with the perception that the victims are giant corporations who no one professes to like and who can well afford the loss of one measly song or film. Any losses to the artists employed or contracted by these corporations are quietly ignored (as are the copyright users who do pay, covering the cost of creating the work that infringers take for nothing). But, in doing so, are infringement apologists forgetting who bought them the goodies at the centre of the debate?
I can't say I find giant corporations particularly lovable, either, and I try to favour small businesses in my neighbourhood as much as possible for things like groceries, services and entertainment. But I have to concede that giant corporations have their uses — for a start, how many of our digital entertainment devices were lovingly crafted in the rustic workshop of an independent electronics artisan? Until someone gets around to examining the distribution of wealth in the creative industries, however, it's hard to say how they might be best used and rewarded.
The Conversaton published my quick overview of business models for the creative industries in the latter weeks of February. I shortly had to laugh at Peter Wilkin's sarcastic suggestion that ads be embedded into songs in response to a copyright-is-futile comment from Mike Swinbourne. Wilkin's tongue-in-cheek hope is that we'll get so sick of the results that we'll go back to paying for music.
I've previously written about the way that the need for advertising money drives data collection machinery like that of Google and Facebook. Wilkin's suggestion at least has the virtue that music listeners would be forced to confront the results of their unwillingness to pay.
Advertising has historically been very successful in raising funds for free-to-air radio and television, print news and search engines, but I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone praising it for its support of great art. At best, people accept it as a necessary evil to be endured in return for regular entertainment. (I presume that marketers themselves have more positive opinions but I don't read the publications in which they offer their views.)
Perhaps those who suggest advertising as the solution for raising funds ought to make the case for its greatness, if this is what they really believe. The apparent lack of any such case leaves me wondering if they really appreciate advertising's contribution, or if they're just being seduced by apparently-free content.
Having had a life-long hatred of advertising, I decided some time ago to make a point of taking the paid version rather than the ad-supported version whenever the former was available. So I pay for someone to host this web site and my e-mail accounts, I pay subscriptions to web sites that I read regularly, and I pay for shareware that I find useful.
This policy has its limits, particularly when it comes to sites or applications that I use only casually. Without an efficient infrastructure and user interface for making small electronic payments, it's difficult for creators to offer paid-for access to small items at a reasonable cost. Perhaps here I'd concede the value of advertising, if only because twenty-odd years of work on "micro-payments" has amounted to more or less nothing.
I wonder if those who support advertising as a solution more generally would be prepared to acknowledge a similar policy. Would anyone commit to a policy of not fast-forwarding through ads on video, not installing pop-up blockers, and not subverting data collection machinery by entering fake data? And is anyone (who is not themselves a marketer) prepared to write an ode to the wonders that advertising has brought us?
The Conversation's David Glance outlined a curious theory this week, suggesting that "part of Apple's success comes from giving us a sense of progress". Glance conjectures that providing workers with updated hardware and software every year might give them a sense of progress that contributes to job satisfaction, and suggests that companies might even consider paying their staff bonuses with which they can upgrade their own devices in bring-your-own-device schemes.
Glance doesn't address the question of whether or not upgrading devices makes any actual progress towards the goals of either a company or an individual worker. For Apple's purposes, it's enough to give a sense of progress if it keeps the customers coming back for more upgrades. As Erich Heinzle's comment points out, this strategy is generally known as planned obsolescence and it's an old strategy that serves car and computer manufacturers well but has some questionable benefits for the rest of us.
A student once told me that he'd grown tired of constantly updating his phone to the latest model, and had given up doing it. I told him, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that it was a sign of maturity. Where a child might grasp for the latest toy, an adult chooses the device that best meets his or her needs at a price that he or she is able to pay. (Indeed, he was studying a subject in which students are supposed to learn how to make informed judgements about what kind of computer equipment meets a set of needs.)
Matthew Tucker's comment alludes to what psychologists call an hedonic treadmill (though Tucker doesn't use the term), in which people chase goals and possessions in the expectation that achieving them will improve their lot, only to find that their happiness shortly returns to its usual level. My student recognised that he was on an hedonic treadmill, and got off it.
I can nonetheless see where Glance is coming from when he writes about the feeling of being left behind when one has to use old equipment while everyone else has, or is presumed to have, the latest model. And upgrading hardware and software can lead to progress if the new versions increase productivity, improve reliability and/or create new opportunities.
Still, serious companies and mature individuals probably want to exercise some caution in interpeting Glance's advice lest they end up on a corporate version of the hedonic treadmill. Glance's article is, after all, mostly about how Apple succeeds, not how its customers succeed. Suppose a company has some money to spend on bonuses. Would the company prefer its bonuses be spent by staff who rush out and buy the latest gadget, or by staff who carefully choose tools that improve the quality, breadth and ease of their work?