This gets dicey, and the content in this post might not be for everyone. Knowing stuff can make life less fun sometimes, and if you’re the kind of person that can’t learn something and then just “meh” it off when there’s not much you can do about it, perhaps you should skip forward to the next post. As we used to say back in my university days, “duh is awe” sometimes. (We also used to say stuff like, Booyah! Totally banging, home-skillet.)
Big Brother, Big Data
Our favorite Big Data information brokers are increasingly acting with impunity these days. Their public behavior sorta makes me wonder if boardroom conversations are going something like this:
Executive Dude: “Oh, oh, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could do this?”
Executive Dudette: “Don’t you think people might object to us filming their intimate moments?”
Executive Dude: Yeah, but then we use the data to create these little dancing emojis!”
Executive Dudette: “Oh, that’s kick ass! Everyone’s going to love it!”
Executive Dude: “Booyah, home-skillet!”
We have to partially blame ourselves. The public’s past objections to the increasingly common data-grabs and privacy invasions has all too often been more “meh” than “holy-sheepskin, Batman!” And as it turns out, we love our dancing emojis.
There’s no possible way to delve into all of the irrational hubris and overreaching over the past year. It will have to suffice to highlight a couple.
One of the creepiest aspects of the new digital frontier is that so much of our personal information is being used in so many ways we know nothing about. This is the underlying reason for the ACLUs recent legal suit against the FBI over their use of facial recognition technology.
Massive databases have been put together over the years via the Department of Motor Vehicles and other government departments. There is no consistent set of rules around what happens with these images, what they can be used for, or who they can be shared with.
Companies like Amazon and Microsoft have been selling facial recognition technologies to other companies for quite some time. Heck, Amazon even offers its facial recognition capabilities to government agencies interested in running extensive scans on databases full of people who never consented to their faces being used in any such manner.
Why not? The information is already stored via Amazon Web Services. And Amazon’s infrastructure is already set up to sort and filter the data. The only “Why not?” I can think of is that when I had my photo snapped for my driver’s license no one asked me if I wanted it to be used to map my movements around town.
In other news, Google was recently busted for hiring outside contractors to target homeless, black people for the purpose of improving facial recognition capabilities on the Pixel 4 phone. I imagine their confused response when confronted on the matter went something like the following.
Executive Dude: What? Black people use smartphones, right?
Journalist: So the ends justify the means?
Executive Dude: I don’t know what that means. But, you’ve heard about how crappy the iPhone’s facial recognition is for dark faces, right? I mean, it’s a gaping vulnerability large enough to drive truckloads of cash through.”
Journalist: Many see this as a callus move to profit off of a vulnerable and historically victimized populous.”
Executive Dude: As if! Don’t be such a fart-knocker. We improved dark-face recognition by like 280%! Booyah! We’re like the successors to MLKJ!
Journalist: [shakes head, starts to object but then walks away]
Executive Dude: Don’t leave me hanging. Our launch party is gonna get crunk tonight!
But wait! It gets better. And by better, I mean much worse. It turns out that about a third of the major websites we frequent are using shady digital fingerpint practices to identify, profile, and target us. This old-school capability is becoming more common at the same time new-fangled security measures are popping up to supposedly protect us from this sort of violation.
Uncle Sam ain’t gonna come to the rescue.
This stuff is terrible, but at least we can trust the government to have our back, right? Uhh...sure. You just plug your ears and close your eyes for this next section. Well, you don’t have to plug your ears unless you’re listening to this outloud.
It turns out the deluge of comments that poured into the FCC expressing disdain for net neutrality and all of its egalitarian, freedom-loving, playing-field-leveling qualities were fabricated by a unscrupulous marketing firm hired by, drumroll please...the FCC. Oh snap. You mean, government agencies cheat and lie? Well butter my biscuits. What is an honest citizen to do?
The Good News Bit
The good news is that there are a few things we can do. First off, don’t be a dupe. If you are reading this, you’re clearly of sound mind and...well, I can’t deduce anything about your body. But, you’re on the right track.
Find a few solid sources of news and information. I’m not going to give you a list, because the last thing we need right now is a bunch of DMB clones running around. Besides, I’m a bit of a podcast guy when it comes to news. You know, stuff like The Creative Penn, Reset, The Bad Crypto Podcast, and the Sell More Book Show. For all I know, you might prefer print.
And if I told you I was a bit of a public radio wonk, you might judge me. If I paraded my frequenting of wikipedia, I’d surely earn several big frownie-faces. Besides, anyone with a connected device and a clicky-finger could track my many references in this book to sites like David Gaughran’s, Bo Sacks, C-Net, Digiday, and Buzzfeed. So the last thing I would do is give you a laundry list of sources I like. Go find your own!
Make sure your sources aren’t all coming from the same bent. If you are an early adapter, be intentional to educate yourself on the new technologies, especially if those technologies generate or intersect big data. If the tech is connected to the information distribution network, be aware of what information is being trafficked and who has access to it. What, if any, rules are regulating its use? Does the information expire at some point or can it be stored indefinitely? Can it be shared with other organizations or companies?
And it never hurts to make a habit of saying stuff outloud like, “I respect and welcome our Amazon overlords.” You know, just incase someone is listening in. I’m pretty sure the repeating of this exact phrase on a daily basis is what resulted in a really nice fruit and muffin basket being delivered to my house anonymously by drone last April. The card just said, “We appreciate your allegiance,” and it was signed “your pal, Z-lord.” Weird, right?
Brave Browser deserves a bolded header right about here.
More good news, there are companies creating solutions. I’ve recently made the conversion on my computers and devices to Brave browser. If you tried Brave a couple years ago and gave up, it’s time to go back. If you’ve not heard of Brave, you need to check it out.
Brave has solutions for targeted advertising. (Google AdSense is completely blocked, and this is a HUGE deal. More on that in a minute.) Brave also has a solution for Digital fingerprints. Coupled with DuckDuckGo, you can protect your browsing and searching in a way that could become extremely disruptive to information dealers in a really good way.
Let’s entertain a hypothetical. Oh, come on, it’ll be fun. All the kids are doing it these days. What if everyone using Chrome right now suddenly switched all their browsing to Brave? For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that Brave could handle this massive scaling of its product and service (which they most certainly could not, at least from the advertising angle).
What would happen? Let’s just say, not all the immediate effects would be seen as positive by many. The first and most obvious is that Google AdSense would suddenly decelerate from ludicrous-speed to somewhere around Sunday-drive. Next, widespread panic.
Google ain’t gonna be happy. Digital marketers would freak. Tons of businesses would be left wondering how in the world to reach their audience.
People who have staked more time and energy into keywords and SEO would step back and sigh with relief. The sort of organic, hard work involved in optimizing search results around your brand name and keywords would continue to pay off with DuckDuckGo and all other search engines while being coupled with Brave. Tracking, and therefore targeted ads, would be crushed by Brave.
One thing you’ll notice if you switch to Brave is that some sites take offense. You will receive some pop-ups saying things like, “We’ve noticed you’re blocking ads,” or “We get it, not everyone likes ads.” These are polite ways for companies to hint that they rely on ad revenues, and they aren’t super happy about people taking their ball and going home. Yes, many, MANY legit companies would take a revenue hit if Chrome users suddenly switched to Brave.
But the flip side of that coin is that information dealers would almost immediately suffocate or be forced to find a new host to suck dry. Sites like Facebook, Youtube, and Amazon would most likely be hit harder by information dealers looking to keep the gravy train flowing. But the reality is that too many dollars would have disappeared from the ecosystem to support the dealers at play. All but the top 10% would give up and either find a new scam or get a legit job like lobbyist or something.
To be fair, paid digital advertising isn't the problem.
At this point, it’s important to state that digital marketing, and more specifically paid digital advertising, is not the problem here. I’m not saying that Brave would kill paid digital advertising. Brave actually has the beginnings of their own paid advertising system in place. It isn’t by any means robust, and it will take time for Brave to scale it up in a responsible manner.
The crux of what makes Brave’s advertising platform so brave is that it shifts the method by which ad payouts are determined from a conversion-based metric to an engagement-based metric. I’m hopeful that Brave fully understands this and that they are building their ad platform this way intentionally.
We’ll discuss conversion vs. engagement metrics while discussing the first tenet of the Pirate Author Code in a few chapters. For now, I’ll point out that clicks or views are conversion-based metrics. This is what AdSense is based on, and it is what leads to click-bate and sensationalism. The actual content doesn’t need to be about what the ad states it is about. Payments are based on clicks.
At this early stage, Brave’s ad platform is built to allow users to decide where the ad revenues go by where the user spends their time, ie. by where the users are engaged. Brave uses a crypto token called BAT (Basic Attention Token). Users can earn BATs by opting to view ads. Then users can opt to reward the sites they frequent with the BATs those users have earned. In a nutshell, this would shift the main way to earn ad revenue from conversion-based friction tactics to engagement-based loyalty tactics. In other words, if you generate great content that people love you’ll earn ad revenue. To my ears, this sounds like a recipe for saving the information distribution network from information dealers.
A final word on Brave for anyone with a website, if you want to be able to receive BATs from users who frequent your site while using Brave as a browser, you must insert a line of code much like you would for using Google Analytics. This code authenticates your site and allows you to participate in the Brave advertising ecosystem.