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A Different Angle on Privacy

As an investor in Web startups whose livelihood depends on advertising, it’s natural that my point of view on privacy is skewed toward the “don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs” point of view.  I tend to think that the Mr. and Ms. Grundy’s who wring their hands over the scary loss of privacy on the Internet reflect the teachings of the Longshoreman Philosopher Eric Hoffer who said, if memory serves me, that “a man is likely to mind his own business [and I’m sure he meant to include women as well] when it is worth minding.”

Don’t get me wrong: there’s something sinister about the lengths to which advertisers and marketers go to divine who you are, what you’re like, and what you want on the web.  The secret cookies, the matching-up of online behavior with so-called “third-party data” (i.e., real-world names, addresses, and incomes).  It’s seamy work, on the whole.

But, from another point of view, it’s also laughable.  All that effort, and they can’t even serve you a decent ad that piques your interest.  Try to think of the last time you saw a “message” on the Internet that actually seemed personally relevant to you.  I can think of one instance my whole adult life, and that came didn’t come from the Internet but, years ago, from an in-store coupon offer which seemed to “know” that I owned a cat.

The Internet is a bit like the kind of salesperson we all hate: a fast-talking oaf who knows nothing about you except that he or she ardently desires to sell you something.

How different would it be if the Internet acted like a great salesperson: someone who takes the time to listen to you, find out what you want, and sell you something that actually satisfies that want.  How great would that be?

There’s actually a radical way to achieve that aim on the Internet.  Instead of jumping through hoops to divine what I want (and scaring me or grossing me out in the process) why not just ask me what I want?  The Internet – and I don’t want to shock anyone here – is interactive.  It’s two way.  An advertiser could find out what I want from me without tricks and subterfuges and opt-outs.  And then they could try to satisfy my wants.

(There are a few startups working this vein, and it should be interesting to see how successful they are.)

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