Privacy on the web - 2020 and the complicated issue of privacy

Privacy on the web - 2020 and the complicated issue of privacy

Internet at large, Privacy, Karl Mattson, 10. December 2020

Part 2: ‘End of the year’ blog series on Privacy

As we’ve shown in part-one of this blog, the history of privacy has brought us to a modern-day inflection point where users want more privacy while advertisers increasingly require more sophisticated user profiling to fund the content users consume. What is the state of things now?  How are things changing, and how should they change?

As an idealist and somebody who has supported and helped the web develop from what it was in ’95 to what it is now, I think that when the big book of the internet is written, people will look back on this period of history, let’s say from 2005 to 2020 and they will scratch their heads and say things like “I cannot believe that users were so willing to give so much of who they are to advertisers for nothing”.

Now we find ourselves at the end of 2020 where the landscape around web user privacy is, in one word, confusing. The concept of web privacy is filled with many different issues connected to user privacy.  Web privacy is one thing to one person and another thing to still another person. This varies according to age, geographic market, level of experience and level of individual technological sophistication. Some users resonate with one privacy related issue like content that has been manipulated based on our social media behavior. Still others are most concerned about  advertising tracking. Still others are most concerned about the private businesses now collecting and selling individual’s personal data.

Some longitudinal consistency about user *attitudes’ towards web privacy does exist. For instance in the USA, web users have been surveyed about their attitudes towards privacy for more than 20 years through The Pew Center for Internet Life. There is a throughline of consumer sentiment in  Pew’s past and present  public surveys about privacy. When internet users are asked if they are concerned about privacy on the web, the majority say “yes, we know we should be, but we don’t know what that means”. There is an acknowledgment among users  there is a need to do something about their online privacy. But many people do not feel empowered, enabled or feel like they have the right tools to address any of these concerns.  Most consumers do not even know what to address.

Here we sit. Privacy is a large, widely varied issue that is poorly understood by most web consumers, yet they feel something needs to be done.

The inflection point, change is in the air

I think that we are at an inflection point when it comes to privacy and attitudes towards user privacy, and what I think is driving that more than anything is the use of social media platforms. In the name of advertising, social media is using the information consumers post and their activity on social media platforms, to serve up the most sophisticated, complicated, targeted and manipulative content and advertising experiences that ever existed. People are getting wise to it. Regular consumers are slowly becoming aware that the experience they see when they use social media is being mediated by algorithms that are being fed personal data about themselves. When users understand that, they do not like it. They do not like this idea of being manipulated.

But perhaps the most obvious and change-making reason we are at a privacy inflection point is that Google will stop supporting the use of third-party cookies in 2022. This is what the bulk of the advertising industry is using right now to target users. The death of 3rd party cookies means the advertising industry needs to find new ways to target ads. And remember, the more targeted the ad the more valuable it becomes.  So, we are at a point now where the industry needs to find a new way of doing what they have been doing for 20 years and users are aware of these changes.

Browsers are the new privacy brokers

The locus point of all of this change to come are web browsers and that is where you can expect innovation to occur.  Let’s be frank, the browser market is, at best, an oligopoly where a few large-market web browsers like Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Safari essentially make the rules. But this could change and the post 3rd party cookie world could provide an opportunity for positive change.  Browsers like Firefox and Opera are waking up to the fact they also have some measure of  control over a very crucial piece of the internet, in a way that they may not have acknowledged or known before. Web browsers, especially the big ones, have conflicting business interests which will define the way they are going to approach the issue of privacy.  If you control a browser, you can do things within that browser that a website cannot do. That allows you to target users in a very precise way. Google may be deprecating third-party cookies, but that is because they control Chrome, and Chrome has a massive market share. Once 3rd party cookies are over each browser will have the opportunity to use its role as the driver of the web experience to target advertising. In a sense each browser becomes an advertising network of its users, which will shift the balance away from ad targeting done by third companies, websites and advertisers to the browser manufacturers.

This is why we see a real growth in companies and start-ups that are trying to address the issue of web browsing privacy, whether it is desktop or mobile, through new sets of browser-based tools and features that allow web consumers to truly make themselves invisible to the kind of tracking that exists right now. This is a relatively new industry and like all new industries it has not yet gone mainstream. Many of these new tools are very hard to use and  often require a subscription.  When you look at the consumer web, widespread understanding and knowledge of how these new classes of privacy management  tools work is very limited.  But that is changing.  User understanding and desire will increase and the tools will become easier to use by all.

We are at an inflection point for browsers, consumers and  advertisers and what we are going to see is a shift towards more consumer control over their personal profiles and data.

The parallel today for consumer web privacy tools is very much like the parallel that existed in the late 1990s regarding how consumers connected to the internet. In the 1990s, before the web went widespread consumer oriented, the only people who understood how to connect to the internet were academics and tech professionals. Back then getting online was not easy. You had to go through a lot of different steps to figure out how to get on the internet that often required knowledge that was passed on by a select few in the very limited and earliest form of social media: message boards and email listservs.  But then companies like America Online in the USA recognized the inflection point at hand and did something bold that was primed to go very big: they made it possible for everyone to connect to the internet, including your grandmother in Iowa. One or two clicks…that changed the landscape.  In the USA, AOL users grew from 3.5 million in 1997 to 30 million by 2000. This was one of the web’s earliest examples of hypergrowth and happened because one company made what was previously a difficult, multi step thing to do — connect to the web – something that happened in less than 3 clicks.

Privacy tools are at that point right now, where only the ‘power users’ are using them, they are very difficult to use, and yet a growing mass market of consumers know they need and increasingly want privacy tools.

Someone is going to step into that void in the market place and offer a suite of privacy tools that are both effective AND very easy for consumers to use. This will change things. I’m confident this will come to be, because that is how consumer change on the internet happens. Paradigm shifts on the web are usually much less about a company inventing something wholly new, and more about a company that finds a way to make the previously hard-to-do easy to do at the right time.

About the author:

Karl Mattson has what he likes to describe as a ‘worker bee’ view of the early commercial web. Like Woody Allen’s ‘Zelig,’ he has been close to and near the companies and events that made the web, from building the first real political news website, to America Online at its height, to Nokia, to the China tech boom. He is now happily at work at eyeo doing whatever he can to change the two most challenged aspects of the internet: internet advertising and personal privacy. In his role as Senior Business Development Director, Karl is involved in bringing eyeo’s mission of putting users in charge of a fair and profitable web, to new platforms and markets through partnerships.