What do fake internet metrics have to do with privacy?

… was a question someone asked in response to this article quoting Ellen Pao, Reddit’s former CEO. She had written on Twitter confirming, in turn, this article in NY Mag (definitely, heart-sinkingly worth a read) about how website engagement stats are almost entirely untrustworthy.

But anyway, back to the question. I realised that fake internet stats are merely one inevitable symptom of the entire incentive structure of the internet, one that is weaponised in every way against privacy online. So I wrote:

“It’s relevant in that belief in these metrics has led to the ad-based model of the web – even the internet as a whole. It’s led to complicated licensing agreements about the use of our privately identifiable information. It’s led to large databases of personal information that then become targets for theft, and in fact have been repeatedly stolen, leading to – almost certainly identity theft. The network effects of amassing data has led to the consolation of the web in the hands of a few giants, who entities like WhatsApp then feel tempted to sell (sell out?) to, ostensibly to free them from the distractions of running a sustainable business (!) but ultimately betraying the privacy-centric promise they originally made to their customers. It’s led to the proliferation of super-cheap devices like Google Home that are subsided by the ability to monetise – yes via ads. And if you’re in a room with someone else’s Echo or Home, you’re exposed to second-hand data leakage. It’s led to the acceptance of real-world surveillance, because we’ve grown to used to being tracked online.

That’s just the bits that have directly to do with privacy. This doesn’t even include how the assumption that ads will pay for everything has led to the normalisation of unsustainable business models for services that people end up depending on, but which ultimately fold. That nearly all web pages are now bloated because of ad delivery engines and trackers. Then there is the opportunity cost of hundreds of millions of man hours of some of our most brilliant minds that are spent engineering data collection. That it’s led to design practices that are optimised for data collection than for actual functionality. 

We may be witnessing that entire model starting to crumble before our eyes. The ad giants had already lost the trust of us in /r/privacy, but when they start to lose that of advertisers and publishers, that is the beginning of the end.”

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