In 2002 a question on ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ on US TV: ‘What is Carol Brady’s maiden name?’ changed how we would experience privacy and The Internet for the coming two decades at least. The Data team at Google saw a spike in search traffic for the query at regular intervals across five time zones in the country that night. What could it mean?
Engineers had begun to note with interest the surplus of behavioural data building up around the search engine, a push from a competitor into ranked advertising and the start of AdWords at Google saw a realisation that they had the beginnings of something else. It was a ‘broad sensor of human behaviour’.
By 2003 it was no longer a search company but the first recursive learning system that could anticipate user needs and suggest services to meet them at a global commercial scale. Others soon followed suit.
From here on the development of a significant and wide-ranging challenge to our privacy, intentions and movements becomes murkier yet — but some things are clear.
A cosy relationship between security agencies (and by extension governments) and large tech platforms developed. Advertisers and their partners were more than happy to feed in more surplus to ‘render’ and take advantage of the advanced targeting options for their products and services. We were also complicit in the huge turn of the flywheel early on happily trading our data in return for services that do provide utility — but without much thought or ability to evaluate the cost.
The communications technology at our disposal is mostly useful, constructive and empowering. It is neither good nor bad, what we do with it as individuals, companies and governments defines its impact and that requires our constant attention and inquiry.
For every person supporting Electronic Frontiers Australia and switching off their social media in favour of less porous platforms there are a thousand happily making the awkward exchange of their data and future intentions for basic services.
There is a reasonable argument that government should and could provide communications services like messaging, email, personal media and the like. At the very least they should be careful regulated like water and electricity, yes we’ll see slower innovation but it will be at the pace we can understand and live comfortably with. Perhaps a mixed market would work — use the slow and steady state-based app we design as a community and mandate privacy OR try your luck with the private service with less transparency and more thrills.
It may be an era of more interested government is coming. Certainly we can’t go far with a small, disinterested mode for much longer and it may be communications technology gets the attention it deserves from citizens, government and the private sector. All need to be involved but the hands-off approach today is not serving us well, only the servers in Mountain View.