Your Privacy and Yahoo’s Business Plan…
Your lack of internet privacy is part of Yahoo's business plan
By Elaine Ou
Yhoo has been getting a lot of attention lately for its failures to protect personal information. What’s perhaps more remarkable, though, is how little privacy American internet users demand.
First came news that hackers stole personal data on more than 500 million Yahoo users. Now the company is dealing with reports that it helped the Justice Department conduct mass surveillance by scanning email traffic for signs of a terrorist organization.
Yet if there’s one thing Americans value more than freedom, it’s free stuff. Thanks to decades of conditioning, people have this notion that online services — email, news, porn, search engines — should be available without charge, like Yahoo.
The unfortunate truth is that internet companies need revenue. And if users don’t want to pay, that revenue has to come from advertisers. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Snap(chat), and Twitter all make money by selling ads. It’s not an easy business model. Online advertising is a highly competitive market with low barriers to entry; all it takes is an app and a paying advertiser.
Cutthroat competition has led platforms to differentiate themselves with targeted advertising — the ability to show ads relevant to a user’s interests. Effective targeting means collecting as much personal data as possible. As a result, we have “free” email products that scan message contents, “free” news sites that track us all over the internet, and “free” search engines that display ads based on our queries as well as our browsing history.
Yahoo scans all of its email traffic. Not just to filter out malware and illegal stuff, but also to deliver targeted advertising. So monitoring emails for terrorist communications wouldn’t be much different from what it already does.
In the U.S., people seem to care more about freedom from excessive legislation. Data privacy is left largely to the market, the idea being that consumers will allocate their attention to service providers that respect their privacy needs. In practice, the relationship is highly asymmetric: Nobody reads company privacy policies, and companies are exceptionally vague in describing their reach.
Non-paying users should realize that they are not customers. They are products that internet companies sell to advertisers. No one wants to be treated as a commodity, but businesses need money to feed their employees and pay the rent. The technology that makes online services free and convenient just happens to be the same technology that enables mass surveillance.
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