And you wonder why people in America are afraid of the Internet

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present to you two exhibits.

Here is Exhibit A from today’s International Herald Tribune:

Will Google take the mobile world of Jaiku onto the Web? - International Herald Tribune

In contrast (Exhibit B) we have the same exact article, but with a completely different headline:

Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues - New York Times

Now, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how the latter is a more accurate or more appropriate title for the article, which is ostensibly about Google’ acquisition of Jaiku.

But, for some reason, the editor of the NY Times piece decided that it would — what? — sell more papers? — to use a more incendiary and moreover misleading headline for the story.

Here’s why I take issue: I’m quoted in the article. And here’s where the difference is made. This is how the how the article ends:

“To date, many people still maintain their illusion of privacy,” he said in an e-mail message.

Adapting will take time.

“For iPhone users who use the Google Maps application, it’s already a pain to have to type in your current location,” he said. “‘Why doesn’t my phone just tell Google where I am?’ you invariably ask.”

When the time is right and frustrations like this are unpalatable enough, Mr. Messina said, “Google will have a ready answer to the problem.”

Consider the effect of reading that passage after being lead with a headline like “Google’s Purchase of Jaiku Raises New Privacy Issues” versus “Will Google take the mobile world of Jaiku onto the Web?” The latter clearly raises the specter of Google-as-Big-Brother while ignoring the fallacy that privacy, as people seem to understand it, continues to exist. Let’s face it: if you’re using a cell phone, the cell phone company knows where you are. It’s just a matter of time before you get an interface to that data and the illusion that somehow you gave Google (or any other third party) access to your whereabouts.

I for one do not understand how this kind of headline elevates or adds to the discourse, or how it helps people to better understand and come to gripes with the changing role and utility of their presence online. While I do like the notion that any well-engineered system can preserve one’s privacy while still being effective, I contend that it’s going to take a radical reinterpretation of what we think is and isn’t private to feel secure in who can and can’t see data about us.

So, to put it simply, there are no “new” privacy issues raised by Google’s acquisition of Jaiku; it’s simply the same old ones over and over again that we seem unable to deal with in any kind of open dialogue in the mainstream press.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

8 thoughts on “And you wonder why people in America are afraid of the Internet”

  1. The issue is not simply ‘privacy’ but rather privacy from whom? If I use a mobile phone, I realise the provider will know where I am and I really do not care. It is having the *state* get casual access to that information that bothers me. I really do not care if Google, Marks & Spencer, Orange or Mr. Patel at the Corner Shop knows where I am. I care very much if the government does.

  2. More posts on the corruption of the tech industry plz. I will post a similar blog on how I’ve watched Silicon Valley change over the past 8 years that I’ve been here, but I’m interested to read what you see as well.


  3. Wow, journalists who take this sensationalist approach to sell more papers make my blood boil.

    Using your quote, but changing the frame of reference as Ekman felt was his right to do, is a definite sign of a cheap-shot lazy journalist.

  4. Chris:

    I take exception to your use of the word “illusion” when talking about privacy. I know my cell provider knows where I am, but I rely on them not to release that to third parties – including governments. I need the assurance that I and I alone can authorize who get that information. If for no other reason than the thieves won’t know when I am away from home so they can break in safely.

    That assurance is only an illusion if the cell company is already releasing that information to third parties without my permission.


  5. @Allen: great point. I think what you’re describing is exactly what I’m afraid is already the reality. We know (or at least should presume) that AT&T is colluding with the government and sharing sensitive cell phone records without any kind of public oversight. We know that Yahoo! has given away the details of users’ accounts in China, resulting the in the jailing of a reporter and Chinese dissident; an AOL employee stole a huge number of accounts.. and on and on. We can only assume that these are just the tip of the ice berg and it’s only going to get worse. Even with stepped up oversight and enforcement, the reality is that more and more information is being generated and stored about us every time we transact digital business with anyone. This isn’t paranoia speaking — I’m not afraid of it — it’s just reality.

    Now, you make a good point. Not all this data being accumulated is being made public. Not all of this data is available for just anyone to use. But the reality is, the small number of organizations who *do* have access to it have enormous power and understanding of our habits and behavior.

    Personally, I’d feel better if I knew what data they had and who they were making it available to. I’d also like to, heck, y’know, be able to export it and use it for my own personal benefit since, arguably, it is *my* data. Without me, it wouldn’t exist, would it?

  6. @Chris. “We know (or at least should presume) that AT&T is colluding with the government and sharing sensitive cell phone records without any kind of public oversight.”

    That’s why the FISA bill and telecom immunity are such big deals. This summer, congress passed a temporary law that allows the government to snoop on correspondence without warrants. Now, Congress is considering updating the law. There are live issues about when the government needs warrants, and whether to give telecom companies immunity from prosecution if they break the law and gave the government information without a warrant. The Talking Points Memo blog covers the issue well, for example:

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