Tuesday, January 7, 2020

We've been poisoned by free

Reading a bunch of articles about how apps, including supposedly-reputable weather apps, like Accuweather and Weather Channel, harvest location data and sell it to data aggregators, who then sell it to advertisers, it occurs to me that the trajectory of the Internet itself led us to this. I mean, normally we’d be very suspicious of free things, right? Somebody’s making money off of these things, and if you don’t know how, you might not like the means. And that is, indeed, how things are working. But the thing is, it didn’t start out this way. In the beginning, there was a lot of free stuff on the Internet, because people were hoping that the free services they were creating would lead to real jobs some day. After that, companies made neat free services for promotional purposes, to draw people to their sites, and then as loss leaders, to persuade people to buy other products if they released something useful for free. Plus, even before the Internet, there was freeware and shareware, with developers making things either genuinely out of the goodness of their hearts, for experience and exposure, or in the hope that enough people would pay to make it worthwhile. And then there was a lot of free stuff powered by ads. And don’t even get me started on Web browsers, which have never (with occasional exceptions) had any visible means of monetization, and yet have high development and marketing costs.


The point is that for a very long time, free things online were both ubiquitous and innocuous, so we all became conditioned to accept free stuff without questioning it. That tendency is now being exploited to, well, exploit us, to use our information in ways that could possibly damage us someday, without us ever knowing about it.


I don’t necessarily object to my information being used to provide me free stuff; I participate in store rewards plans, after all. And if I can get free services on the Internet by allowing my location data to be used in aggregate so that retailers can better cater to their customers, why do I care?


Well, the answer, as the articles linked above describe, is that it’s fairly trivial to use that “aggregate” data to determine exactly who is doing exactly what, and that’s a major problem. Anything that could be used to blackmail you, or as evidence in a criminal investigation against you, should at least be something you’re aware other people have.


I don’t have an easy answer to this, except that, as Adam Grossman notes, Apple should set clear policies for data collection, instead of relying on privacy policies that no one reads or understands, to force app developers to make clear to users just exactly what their data is being used for. I don’t agree with Adam that such collection should be banned, just that it should be put explicitly in the user’s control. If that means that the app doesn’t work if permissions aren’t granted, fine! That’s my choice.


I just thought it was interesting to note that this state of affairs wasn’t necessarily inevitable, but followed from how the culture of the Internet developed. Institutions, history, and expectations matter.