Did you know Google Feud’s #1 response to the phrase, “My friend is addicted to ____” is “phone.” But as technology continues to permeate our lives, a lot of tech companies would plug in “collecting your personal information” instead.
A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that she’s closeted her Alexa after getting a call from a vendor offering her a great price on tickets to a concert featuring country music superstar Brad Paisley. This following a conversation among family members the day before about that very concert. They happened to be standing next to a kitchen counter where Alexa sat. Was she listening? Who knows.
Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we Americans remain confused and oddly offended when we discover (if we discover) our information has been sold and used without our permission. There is no constitutional right to privacy. In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively.
Succeeding and staying ahead is a struggle for any company, particularly small tech companies. Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire haunt us for days to come.
At the time, we jumped into the thick of it. It was an opportunistic, defensive strategy. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives, influencers and media. In 2000, we joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security. The offering would ask people to opt in, rather than automatically including them in invisible information gathering. But we were never able to sell a product, and the company folded 18 months later. We were small, but if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.
We did all the right things in those early days, but we ultimately failed because customers expect companies to deliver value — innovation — first. Privacy is generally an afterthought. Amazon, Facebook and Google knew this from the get-go.
Postscript: The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data, to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.