If you feel the need to start a post with saying you're not paranoid, you're probably paranoid.
I'm not paranoid.
That being said, the Internet sure has been getting creepy lately. What with Facebook working on an über-cookie that tracks you even after you log out and Twitter and Facebook both being able to track you across any site that has a Twitter or Facebook button—a huge swath of the Web—and Google of course having its tentacles into everything—your Web surfing is generating a constant stream of data about you.
Most people are probably aware of this at some level, but not how detailed and sophisticated this data-gathering has become. As a former Facebook employee said, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” (And incidentally, that last link leads to Bloomberg Businessweek, which we found out just this week has been using its Bloomberg Terminals to spy on traders in what is an absolutely breathtaking breach of ethics and common decency if true.)
You, my friend, are worth bank and extremely smart people with flexible morals—as well as a bunch of general Silicon Valley high-energy douchebags—are doing their best to cash in.
There's a pretty decent overview of ways to protect yourself at Lifehacker. It's worth reading. But this is of course not new. It's been going on for years. And you could make some kind of argument that them's the breaks: You pay for the free services with your personal information. That argument is weakened by people not really understanding just what it is they are giving up for the ability to stalk high school friends on the Internet, but nevertheless, it is an argument.
What's been raising my hackles lately is something as innocuous-seeming as newspaper paywalls. There's certainly nothing wrong with newspapers trying to stay afloat. You could be a bit bitter and make a solid argument that the industry could perhaps have used some of its 40% and up profit margins in the golden days to invest in the future instead of convincing themselves the Internet was just a fad, sure, but what's done is done.
Paywalls are here to stay and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with them. Except here's what bothers me: For each news site you create an account with, that newspaper now knows exactly which articles you read. Not in aggregate, but in precision-strike detail. You.
Is it possible that an organization under severe financial strain will be tempted to sell out its morals and its users? Bear, poop, woods.
For myself, I do want to support news gathering, so paying is no problem, but orifice-probing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, so at this point I pay for the content, but use incognito mode to read the sites. Which is a best of both worlds for me.
Now, the reason I started using incognito mode was nothing as high-minded as my personal data. No, it was simply technological incompetence. That's right. The two sites I'm currently paying for, AZCentral.com and NYTimes.com, both kept managing to log me out all the freaking time. And you know, much as I want to pay my fair share, adding the frustrations of technological incompetence to my experience as a paying customer is just not a good move.
First rule of getting paid on the Internet: Make it easy.
Second rule of getting paid on the Internet: Don't make it difficult.
Logging me out and throwing guilt-trip messages in my face every few days as it turns out is not the way to make me feel good as a customer. I'm sure you can set your cookies to last longer than a few days. Really. If you don't, call me and I will tell you how to do it.
Paywalls are a fascinating topic, and the Swedish newspaper industry (like the flagship Dagens Nyheter) are taking a different tack from American media, moving toward a “Plus” model—there's no metering, but certain content, like in the case of Dagens Nyheter, movie and music reviews, as well as other premium content, are locked down to subscribers only.
I'm not familiar with the economics of either approach, but Plus content does have a bonus for the sites: You have to be logged in to get the Plus content, so incognito mode stops becoming an option. To me it makes more sense than metering, but money talks and so far the companies on either side of the Atlantic haven't shared their numbers anywhere I've seen. But I'd sure love to know.
And then there's Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, etc.… All of which I feed data into every day. This is the kind of game you can only win by not playing.
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