If advertisers have nothing to hide why are some anonymous? Release all ads so we can see who placed them
Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner has strong opinions about privacy and data collection, and his experience makes that particularly interesting. Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Jon is the co-founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Vivaldi Technologies, and before that co-founder and CEO of Opera Software.
As Jeremy Cowan writes, some of what he tells VanillaPlus here may have occurred to you too, but I for one had never voiced it so eloquently. Many of us have been reluctant occasionally to give away our personal data when accessing an online service, and we may have felt there should be an option — but there wasn’t.
Jon von Tetzchner: I just think that things have gone too far, with regards to the collection of data, and I think that things need to be changed. We’ve been told that we have to accept that information is being collected on us, and that’s part of accessing the internet. But it wasn’t done until recently, not to this level.
I think people have just caved in and said, “Okay, this is the price we pay,” but it doesn’t have to be. The damage from the collection is too much, so we need to stop it.
VanillaPlus: Yes. Why do you think people accepted it?
JvT: I think in a way, they’re just being told that they have to, and there’s no-one really speaking up about it, to say that, “You shouldn’t be collecting this information.” I think for a while there, people were just accepting it because they thought there was a correlation between privacy and security. That you had to give up privacy for security reasons, and that’s not really the case. If anything, you can argue the opposite.
VanillaPlus: Are you ploughing a lonely furrow here? Or are other people already saying the same sort of thing, and getting traction?
JvT: I think I’m early, but I think there are others that are sharing my opinions. When I talk about these things, everyone seems to agree completely. A lot of people have been saying that they didn’t really think you could say, “Okay, we can’t do this.” Or, they didn’t think that there have existed laws that prevent these kinds of things from happening.
I don’t know about you, but I have a company; I’m used to having some user data, and you just don’t share it with anyone else. That’s a violation of law, at least in Norway and Iceland, and the like.
So, the concept of this total collection, like we are seeing now, it just doesn’t make any sense. Then, when you combine that with the targeting opportunities, which are being provided, which you can say, “It’s great for small companies, to be able to reach a bigger audience.” But it’s also putting up a lot of unhealthy ways of advertising.
VanillaPlus: When you say unhealthy, could you be more specific?
JvT: Well, actually, the point, and the word is specific. You can send out different ads to different people, and I think it opens up more propaganda, but it also opens up more ads that you wouldn’t dare to put out an ad like that, to the global public, but you would to a smaller group.
VanillaPlus: So, what as an industry and as individuals do you think we should be doing about it?
JvT: Well, I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, because it’s something that I hear from end users; “What are you doing to keep us safe?” And we’re thinking, there are certain things we can do. We can try to put in some kind of mechanisms, or you can browse so it’s more difficult to track you.
I don’t think people realise that you can still be tracked, as long as you log in, into a service, you’ll always be kind of tracked anyway. But I was thinking about this a lot, and the only way really to fix this, is through regulation.
And there is regulation on privacy, and in general. So, what happened to that? And why are we talking about the legislation being prohibitive. Oftentimes, it is all about us being able to see what’s being tracked about us, right?
JvT: It’s not really about not being able to track us. And I think that’s what we should be doing. We should be focusing not on not being able to track, we should be focusing on not being able to target as narrowly as you can today. I’m actually thinking of it just going back to where it was, where you were targeting, if you put an ad, it would be on a location, on a subject, related to a subject, but not related to the person. And it was working fine, right?
JvT: So, I also think with the ads that are being placed, that we should be able to see them. There is obviously a talk about the ads that have been placed during the elections, in the US. And there is talk of releasing some of those ads, but I would take it further. I would say, “Let’s release all the ads.”
So, if you see an ad on a page, you would be able to see who placed it, and again – particularly in politics, and living in the United States where there’s a fair amount of pretty bad ads that are being placed, this tool is in the hands of the wrong businesses really.
VanillaPlus: Have you mentioned this to regulators? Or is that the next stage of your discussions?
JvT: What I’ve been doing up until this time, is basically just talking. I’m sensing the response, then I’m hoping that some regulators see this, and want to do something with it. I’m not necessarily thinking that I should be having to go and teach them. If they want me to, if they ask me, and they want to talk to me, I will talk to them.
But I don’t want to be putting out a complaint, and going to negotiate. We did that with Opera, with regards to Microsoft. That was more anti-competition. This is a society question, more than a competition question, of course.
I actually think that the authorities should be concerned about this. And my feeling is that they are, but the solutions they’re coming out with, in some ways, I would be concerned about. For example, the suggestion that you can see your data, right?
It sounds great. My problem is that well, every now and then, there’s a hack on these big services, like the Yahoo! service, with 3 billion accounts hacked. So if someone gets your log-in data, they can actually go and they can look at your data, so obviously Google and others are putting in mechanisms to make that harder. But still, I would say that that’s a reasonable risk, that there is a risk that someone can hack your account, and through that they could find everything on you, personally.
So the question is, “Is the solution actually helping to solve the problem, or potentially making it worse?”
VanillaPlus: So at the moment, you’re sounding out the industry, to see what support you get?
JvT: In a way. I’m saying my piece, and we’ll see if anyone agrees with me, and so far the impression is that people do.
VanillaPlus: Can you give me any idea of the kind of people that you’ve been getting feedback from, the kind of organisations or individuals that have been coming back to you?
JvT: I’m obviously talking to journalists who will write about this. They quite often will comment that yes, they agree. And obviously after the articles are presented, people contact me and say the same. It’s not particular organisations, or companies, but a lot of people that I respect that have contacted me, and yes, for them this is an important thing to talk about.
VanillaPlus: Which sort of forums, other than regulators, do you think should be discussing this?
JvT: I think that in many ways, the regulators are the most important, but we have to have a bigger talk about it. Because governments are talking about putting in back doors, and they’re also very much afraid of things like Internet of Things (IoT), and I believe that we should have the Internet of Things, and I don’t believe we should have back doors.
They need to understand what they’re doing. And one other thing is that by putting in back doors, you are basically making it easier for people with bad intent. Because the problem with back doors is that people find them, right?
JvT: And the problem with saying, “Hey, okay, let’s put everything in the cloud, because the IoT can be used potentially, in some kind of attack,” and my thinking is, “No, that’s wrong as well, because come on, we are seeing the consequences of these big hacks,” right?
You leave it as a more distributed system, and then work on making that more secure. And part of that is not having any back doors.
VanillaPlus: Do you have any other concerns about ad targeting?
JvT: Well, it used to be you had ads, and they were placed on the sites that you visited, right? And that was the model, and it was working just fine, if it was used in newspapers, and then it worked online as well. In some ways, it works better online, because you could provide something that was related to the articles that were being written.
So, in a way it was very good targeting. But then, well we took that one step further, and started targeting the individual, and from a privacy, security, society standpoint, that just opens up a lot of problems, and I don’t really see what it gives us.
VanillaPlus: I suspect there’ll be a bit of pushback from the advertising sector?
JvT: Probably. In some ways, you don’t want to be saying, “Okay, we can’t do this, and can’t do that.” But the reality is that always with technology, we have to look at, “Is the technology being used in a way that we want it to be used? Is it helping society as a whole? Or are we creating a system where people are feeling they’re being followed?”
Everyone tells me creepy stories about, “Okay, I did this, and suddenly there was an ad.” Right?
JvT: A lot of people, they just expect to explain why that happens. Sometimes it’s more difficult, like the person that said, they had taken a picture of something, and then suddenly they see ads everywhere, for that thing. Or, they go and look at something in the store, and then they see ads for what they looked at, at the store, and they don’t understand why. And actually in this case, I can’t really explain it. (Laughter)
But people are feeling that they are followed, and that’s not a feeling that we should have to have. And I also think, we shouldn’t have to choose between being all in the open, which a lot of us have kind of accepted, or being all hidden, which actually makes us more interesting for governments, and the like.
“People are feeling that they are followed, and that’s not a feeling that we should have to have.”
Seemingly, it makes us more vulnerable. I was at a security conference, and they talked about anyone that was using Dark Net, which basically means trying to hide their traces a little bit. That they have to be doing something really bad, and that’s not really true.
A lot of people have really good reasons for why they don’t necessarily want to be tracked all the time. Sometimes, I ask people, I just kind of get a bit creepy, and I ask them, “So, can I follow you? Can I see everything you do? Can I listen to everything you say?”
And obviously, any sane person answers, “No, you can’t.” But that’s kind of where we are, and how the technology is being used.
VanillaPlus: It’s particularly concerning if someone as well-versed in this as you, is unable to explain how some of these ads are placed?
JvT: Yes, where they were saying, “I looked at a dress in a physical store, and then I got an ad for it afterwards,” that one I couldn’t explain. But there are things happening; my wife was freaked out just now. She went and bought sushi at the mall.
And she said that after that, she got an email saying, “Hey, hope you liked the sushi, do you want to come back and get 10% off?” Now the thing is, she didn’t give them her email address. So seemingly, there’s a service that actually looks at your credit card information, and finds your email address. It’s going too far. Yet in some ways, those things, I don’t if you can say, “Okay, they’re just a nuisance, they’re not that big of a deal.” But I think overall, it’s a bad thing.
VanillaPlus: No, I’d say that is going too far, and I do think that it isn’t widely understood how much data is actually held on each of us. Certainly, the public I don’t think has a full understanding of it.
JvT: I don’t think they do, and I think that part of this is people understanding how much is being collected, and that they actually understand then, is that reasonable? Because what happens then, if people see this, and they think this is unreasonable, then they talk to their politicians, and their politicians say, “Okay, that’s right, this is unreasonable,” then this can be regulated.
VanillaPlus: Okay. It will be very interesting to see if this reaches a wider forum; I suspect it will.
JvT: There is quite a lot of interest. So, we will see where it goes. Again, I’m seeing others starting to say the same, with regards to the ads, for example, I have noticed that there are other voices, saying similar things in the US. About the ads being placed, and in particular for political purposes, being available to the public.
VanillaPlus: Yes. But you’re only seeing that in the political sphere, are you?
JvT: Well, I’ve seen this all in the US; obviously it’s in relation to the discussions on to what extent the Russians were involved in getting us Trump. But I believe this should be seen in a wider scope than just this election. It should be seen also for future elections, and in general accountability with regards to how you are representing your product.
So, if you put out an ad, then you should not have to be ashamed of it, right? And if you are ashamed of it, you probably shouldn’t have put it out there.
VanillaPlus: No, it’s a good point.
JvT: And in particular we are being told that, “If you have nothing to hide, then why worry about privacy?”
But the advertisers, they can actually hide from you. So, I would ask the same question of them, and I think it’s a more reasonable question to ask of advertisers, than the public.