News is out today of a survey from video advertising platform Ebuzzing claiming that it would cost an average of E140 per year per UK citizen to pay for an ad-free Internet and that the majority of users (98% of them, in fact) would never, ever be willing to pay such fees.
I'm not surprised by results like this -- if someone asked me "Would you pay $185 a year to avoid pop-up ads?" my first thought would be "No, I'd install Ad Block" or "No, I'd just avoid the websites that show obnoxious ads I don't want to see." According to Ebuzzing's results, that's precisely what most of its respondents do.
There is, however, a more interesting facet to this question. What would I pay to not be tracked
online? Toss that into the pot, and the value changes.
An Ever-Growing Web
Edward Snowden's leaks broke the wall of silence on the NSA's activities, but commercial companies have been trading in a steadily expanding stream of online information for years. If you've ever searched a travel website for flight details, you've probably seen ads for air travel popping up a short time later -- sometimes within minutes. Target
was roundly embarrassed last year when an irate father called the company demanding to know why his daughter was receiving ad flyers and offers congratulating her on her pregnancy. Target's automatic data mining algorithms had identified her as pregnant based on her buying habits -- and inadvertently disclosed that information to her family with its automatic targeted mailers.
Facebook has also worked on tech to track what you don't post -- and where your eyes focus
are working on technologies that can automatically identify subjects in pictures, automatically identify where the picture was taken based on its background, and automatically tag individuals without requiring their consent. Police departments across America are partnering with commercial databases that scan and store license plate information in multiple states and across the country, thereby creating an effective map of where people travel at all times. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to affix a GPS
device to a vehicle without a warrant (United States v. Jones), but creating a database of everyone who happens to be driving a vehicle in public? That's somehow legal.
Think about that. Affixing a specific tracking device to a vehicle is illegal unless you've got a warrant, but creating a system that tracks everyone (whether suspected of a crime or not) is somehow legal. It's the same flimsy justification that the NSA has leaned on, arguing that surveillance doesn't occur until a database of information has been searched
as opposed to merely collected.
Amazon, Facebook, Google, and other data aggregators present friendly faces and privacy guarantees, but the heavy lifting is done by companies like Acxiom
, and Transunion
. These companies are intensely secret and often refuse to divulge key information on how information is collected or how it gets used. These companies don't just target you for advertising -- a 35 page Senate report released last year
illustrated how data brokers actively use their work to sell information on low-income vulnerable populations who are most likely to take advantages of services like payday loans.
From the conclusion of that report:
Consumers going about their daily activities -- from making purchases online and at brick-and-mortar stores, to using social media, to filing for a professional license -- should expect that they are generating data that will end up in the hands of data brokers. They should expect that this data may well be amassed with many other details about them that data brokers already have compiled. And they should expect that data brokers will draw on this data without their permission to construct detailed profiles on them reflecting judgments about their characteristics and behaviors. [emphasis added].
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there aren't very many people who'd be willing to pay Google, or Facebook, or any other service to butt out of their personal lives and actively stop collecting vast amounts of personal information. Obviously the logistical problems of ensuring this are enormous -- would one pay every company separately? Who would ensure that data collection had actually stopped? How would untracked users be kept that way when they interacted with tracked customers?
It's an impractical idea for a host of reasons, but as a thought experiment? I'd cheerfully pay $200 a year to stay off the grid. It's astonishing to me that people continue to take the attitude that "Well, they aren't doing anything wrong," when so little information is available on how online data is smashed up, combined, and sold across the country. It's the same attitude people took towards the NSA until a whistleblower stepped forward and demonstrated that the NSA was
doing things that a great many people took issue with. Post-Snowden
, there's no reason to extend this kind of trust to any corporation.