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Privacy Fundamentalism: A Critique of Ben Thompson's Stratechery Article


Privacy Fundamentalism Stratechery by Ben Thompson




Introduction




Privacy is a fundamental human right, but it is also a complex and contested concept. How do we define privacy? How do we protect it? How do we balance it with other values and interests? These are some of the questions that have sparked heated debates in recent years, especially in the context of digital technology. One of the most influential voices in these debates is Ben Thompson, the founder and author of Stratechery, a popular newsletter and podcast that analyzes the business and strategy of technology. In his article "Privacy Fundamentalism", Thompson challenges some of the assumptions and arguments of privacy advocates who he calls "privacy fundamentalists". He argues that these advocates are making things worse by not considering trade-offs, ignoring the inherent nature of digital, and overlooking the far bigger problems that come with digitizing the offline world. In this article, I will summarize and critique Thompson's article, as well as provide some background information on Stratechery and Ben Thompson. I will also discuss some of the implications and challenges of privacy issues in today's digital society. The Inherent Nature of Digital




One of the key points that Thompson makes in his article is that privacy advocates often misunderstand or ignore how the Internet works and why data collection and propagation are inevitable. He explains that the Internet is a network of networks that relies on protocols and standards to communicate data across different devices and platforms. Data is not stored in one place, but rather distributed across multiple servers and intermediaries. This means that data can be copied, modified, intercepted, or leaked at any point along the way. Thompson argues that this inherent nature of digital means that there are always trade-offs between privacy and other values or interests. For example, if we want to have more convenience, security, or innovation online, we have to accept some degree of data collection and sharing. Conversely, if we want to have more privacy online, we have to sacrifice some degree of convenience, security, or innovation. There is no perfect solution or absolute privacy online. Thompson also points out that data can be used for good or evil purposes depending on who collects it, how they use it, and what they do with it. For example, data can be used to improve user experience, provide personalized services, enhance security, or foster social good. But data can also be used to manipulate users, invade their privacy, harm their reputation, or violate their rights. Therefore, we should not judge data collection or use based on its quantity or quality, but rather based on its context and consequences. The Flawed Assumptions of Privacy Advocates




Another key point that Thompson makes in his article is that privacy advocates often use flawed assumptions or arguments to support their views or actions. He criticizes three main aspects of their approach: their definition of tracking, their implementation of privacy measures, and their moral stance on privacy. First, Thompson criticizes the overly broad definition of tracking used by some privacy advocates. He uses the example of a New York Times article by Farhad Manjoo, who installed a special browser that logged every site he visited and every data point that was collected by third-party services. Manjoo claimed that he was tracked by hundreds of trackers on every site he visited, including Stratechery, which does not have any advertising or analytics. Thompson explains that Manjoo's browser counted every script, image, or cookie that was loaded from a third-party domain, no matter its function. He shows how Stratechery's "trackers" were actually benign services that provided payment processing, font rendering, content delivery, performance monitoring, or social sharing. He argues that not all third-party services are tracking users or violating their privacy, and that lumping them together is misleading and counterproductive. Second, Thompson criticizes the unintended consequences or harms of some privacy measures implemented by privacy advocates. He uses the example of Apple's App Tracking Transparency (ATT) policy, which requires apps to ask users for permission before tracking them across other apps or websites. Thompson argues that this policy is not only ineffective in protecting users' privacy, but also harmful to users' interests. He explains that this policy does not prevent apps from collecting or using data within their own domains, but only from sharing it with other domains. This means that apps can still track users and target them with ads based on their own data, but they cannot use data from other sources to improve their services or offer more relevant ads. This also means that apps have less incentive to share data with other apps or platforms that could benefit users or society. For example, apps could share data with health authorities to help fight COVID-19, or with researchers to help advance scientific knowledge. Thompson argues that Apple's policy is not only reducing the quality and diversity of online services and content, but also creating a walled garden that benefits Apple's own interests. Third, Thompson criticizes the moral superiority and absolutism of some privacy advocates. He uses the example of a tweet by Edward Snowden, who claimed that "Facebook is more harmful than anything the NSA ever did". Thompson argues that this claim is not only false, but also dangerous. He explains that Facebook is a voluntary service that users can choose to use or not use, while the NSA is a government agency that can spy on anyone without their consent or knowledge. He also points out that Facebook has many positive aspects and benefits for users and society, while the NSA has many negative aspects and risks for civil liberties and democracy. Thompson argues that privacy advocates who make such claims are not only ignoring the trade-offs and complexities of privacy issues, but also undermining their own credibility and influence. The Bigger Problems of Digitizing the Offline World




The final key point that Thompson makes in his article is that privacy advocates often overlook the far bigger problems that come with digitizing the offline world. He explains that digitizing the offline world means transforming physical objects, spaces, and activities into digital data that can be collected, analyzed, and manipulated by technology. He argues that this process poses more serious threats to privacy than online tracking, because it involves more sensitive and personal data, more powerful and pervasive technology, and more potential for abuse and harm. Thompson discusses four examples of how digitizing the offline world can endanger privacy: facial recognition, biometric data, location data, and smart devices. He explains how these technologies can capture and identify people's faces, fingerprints, voices, heartbeats, movements, locations, behaviors, preferences, emotions, health conditions, and more. He also explains how these technologies can be used by governments, corporations, criminals, hackers, or anyone else who has access to them for surveillance, profiling, discrimination, exploitation, coercion, or violence. Thompson argues that these technologies pose more difficult and urgent challenges for privacy regulation and education than online tracking. He suggests that we need more nuanced and balanced approaches to privacy issues that consider the trade-offs between privacy and other values or interests; the context and consequences of data collection and use; and the rights and responsibilities of different actors and stakeholders. Conclusion




In conclusion, Ben Thompson's article "Privacy Fundamentalism" is a provocative and insightful critique of some of the assumptions and arguments of privacy advocates who he calls "privacy fundamentalists". He argues that these advocates are making things worse by not considering trade-offs; ignoring the inherent nature of digital; and overlooking the far bigger problems that come with digitizing the offline world. FAQs




Here are some common questions and answers related to the topic of privacy fundamentalism: - Q: What is privacy fundamentalism? - A: Privacy fundamentalism is a term used by Ben Thompson to describe a view or approach to privacy that is based on absolute or extreme principles, such as "privacy is a human right", "all data collection is bad", or "all tracking is evil". Privacy fundamentalists tend to ignore or reject the trade-offs, complexities, and contexts of privacy issues, and often advocate for radical or unrealistic solutions, such as banning or blocking all data collection or tracking. - Q: What are some examples of privacy fundamentalists? - A: Some examples of privacy fundamentalists are Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information about the NSA's surveillance programs and claimed that "Facebook is more harmful than anything the NSA ever did"; Farhad Manjoo, who installed a special browser that logged every data point that was collected by third-party services and claimed that he was tracked by hundreds of trackers on every site he visited; and Apple, who implemented a policy that requires apps to ask users for permission before tracking them across other apps or websites and claimed that it was protecting users' privacy. - Q: What are some of the problems or consequences of privacy fundamentalism? - A: Some of the problems or consequences of privacy fundamentalism are that it can mislead or scare users about the nature and extent of data collection and tracking; it can reduce the quality and diversity of online services and content; it can create walled gardens that benefit certain interests or platforms; it can undermine the credibility and influence of privacy advocates; and it can distract from or ignore the bigger problems that come with digitizing the offline world. - Q: What are some of the alternatives or solutions to privacy fundamentalism? - A: Some of the alternatives or solutions to privacy fundamentalism are to adopt more nuanced and balanced approaches to privacy issues that consider the trade-offs between privacy and other values or interests; the context and consequences of data collection and use; and the rights and responsibilities of different actors and stakeholders. For example, we can use tools or settings that allow us to control our data and preferences; we can support regulations or standards that protect our data and rights; we can educate ourselves and others about the risks and benefits of data and technology; and we can engage in rational and constructive dialogue on privacy matters.






Privacy Fundamentalism – Stratechery by Ben Thompson

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