TOC No exit Your Turn

September 9, 2008

The "idea of appealing to the "social responsibility" of business" to correct the excesses of capitalism is absurb. I cannot agree more with this thesis presented in a book by "Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labour" (1). Wishful thinking can never be a match against conflicts of interest. Despite all its promises to do no evil, if Google can profit from violating its users' privacy, it will.

In fact Samuel Brittan's approving review of the book (*) may induce a sense of déjà vu in my readers. Savor the mention of "market failures in environmental and other areas" and its vivid explanation of today's pronaocracy through "the staggering increase in business lobbying expenditures". If I had an objection to make, it would be with the title of the column, "The wrong kind of Third Way". Casting doubts upon Rober Reich's remedy via "laws, taxes and other interventions", Samuel Brittan actually leaves us with no way out. "No exit".

Two weeks ago, have I not hinted myself nothing short of a miracle can redeem privacy from Supercapitalism's hell?

Take Jason Pontin's quandary for instance (**). He knows how abusive "social technologies" can become to those whose "sentiment of being depends upon the opinion of other people". Yet he acknowledges their "capacity to expand and improve our lives". His way out? Pure common sense. His social persona simply sticks to his professional interests. To preserve privacy, segment your life, just as searching in privacy requires domain segmentation. Unfortunately the more carefully Jason Pontin segments his profile, the more advertising networks re-aggregate his behavior.

Segue to poor Guy Wyser-Pratte. As Diana B. Henriques reports (***), a personal account for this client of "the elite private banking operation at JPMorgan Chase" got plundered to the tune of $300,000 over a 15-month period. Forget schadenfreude. Guy Wyser-Pratte deserves the same sympathy as all other id theft victims. The point is that despite paying a premium to his banker, he could not rely on anyone but himself to check his account statement for errors. How then can we trust data aggregators to manage our personal profile with any degree of accuracy? Without real time personal oversight, put in mercenary hands free from any responsibility, our data can only be subject to increased corruption.

Switching our gaze from victims to perpetrators surely does not bring much comfort.

Remember Martin Lukes, the sleazy fellow I once spotted at the helm of the Financial Times ? At the time Pearson, its corporate owner, reserved the right to share customers' personal data among its corporate affiliates and with its third party suppliers (2). As no one believes the group has mended its ways, what to make of the following report by Rosie Blau (****)? "Penguin, [part of Pearson], launched a dating site in association with". Lucy Kellaway, Martin's creator, wrote a column last May about due diligence when dating online (3). Scales fall from my eyes. Before heading to jail, Martin must have told her about Pearson plans to merge profiles from the Financial Times, Penguin books and

Worse. What if Google hires Martin Lukes at his release from jail? John Gapper has already explained the new browser war hides a lunge for the jugular (*****). Where Microsoft has so far failed to absorb search functionalities into its built-in browser, Google intends to succeed in making desktop operating systems irrelevant to its Internet application engine. Had John Gapper also reminded his readers how convenient it is for a data aggregator to control the browser! He may harbor some reservations about targeted advertising. Martin Lukes will have no such scruples.

Corporate feudal warfare offers some hope. If, true to his track record, Martin Lukes at Google turned his new employer against the Financial Times, maybe this newspaper would rediscover reader privacy. After all Matt Richtel documents a similar story (******). For $30 in protection money, Best Buy removes "software spam" pre-installed by manufacturers on the computers it sells. If only Microsoft could understand that Google greed fatally weakens its superior business model by increasing its reliance on user privacy abuse! An unlikely comeback as both competitors have chosen to blackmail users on privacy. Stay incognito or enjoy the convenience of personalization. Self annihilation is not a proper exit.

However remote, a solution offering personalization and privacy requires consumers to band together. To get out of this hell we need other people.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. The wrong kind of Third Way, Samuel Brittan (Financial Times) - August 28, 2008
  • (**) .......... Authenticity in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, by Jason Pontin (Technology Review) - September/October, 2008
  • (***) ........ The Bank Account That Sprang a Leak, by Diana B. Henriques (New-York Times) - August 30, 2008
  • (****) ...... Been left on the shelf? Read on, by Rosie Blau (Financial Times) - August 29, 2008
  • (*****) .... Google launches Microsoft's big fear, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - September 3, 2008
  • (******) .. Computers, Scrubbed Clean, by Matt Richtel (New-York Times) - August 28, 2008
  • (1) Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, by Robert B. Reich (Borzoi Books) - September, 2007
  • (2) per the July 2006 privacy policy of the Pearson Group
  • (3) see newspaper references at the bottom of my fillip The future of the Internet rolls on roles"
September 2008
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