Last week when I was interviewed by a member of the German media, I was reminded in just how low esteem many Europeans hold the big Internet companies. There are of course a number of reasons for this ranging from the well known privacy and antitrust concerns, to the minimal amount of taxes paid in Europe by these companies, their not infrequent public contempt for European law – and of course, envy.
Nonetheless, the privacy issue to most people is by far the most significant. I was personally reminded of why just a few short days after the interview.
A month earlier, I had been rear-ended at fairly high speed. I had muscle spasms and some pain and so went to my doctor, and learned unsurprisingly that pretty much all of my ribs were somewhere other than where they should be. My liver was also a bit tender to the touch. So my doctor suggested that I take an over the counter liver supplement for a month.
That night I was a bit tired and had a headache. The extra few keystrokes to run searches looking for a good liver supplement through an anonymizer didn’t seem worth the effort, though it is something I am usually prone to do for anything even remotely health or security-related. The same night I searched for a power of attorney template for a totally unrelated, routine matter.
Since that night, I have been barraged with ads and spam mails for rehab clinics and for local attorneys. This has been going on for a couple of weeks now and counting. In my case, I’m just irked at my own laziness every time yet another one of these pops up. However I could easily imagine how this torrent of emails and ads could do great harm to a junior person or a temporary worker whose boss might jump to the conclusion that the employee (or perhaps a family member of the employee) was alcoholic and maybe even had been involved in a DUI. Doubtless, a big data app is out there that would connect those dots. Worse still, in most cases, the boss would jump to the conclusion silently; asking questions could trigger ADA problems. If the employee is at all unlucky, she could easily lose her job and be left to only speculate at the reasons.
This is exactly the kind of thing that sends many Europeans into a froth. Of course, this is just a consequence of the ad word economy. However, that does not make it any less myopic. The more people who have experiences like this, the more anonymizers will be used for searches – and the greater an incentive for new anonymization products. Likewise the more people will take steps to shield their identity, block cookies and so on. And above all, it creates the virtual certainty of ever more regulation. Given that advertising is still ~95% of Google’s revenue and essentially all of Facebook’s, this poses a sustainability problem over the long term. And not only in Europe.