Journalism’s coming war on privacy

June 25, 2007

Will journalism’s survival depend on the destruction of personal privacy?

Some people wouldn’t be surprised. They would say journalism has always been at war with privacy: Reporters make a living by revealing things other people want to keep private. “They’ll publish anything to sell papers.” We’ve all heard that, many of us have even said it.

From the other side, journalists are conditioned to bristle at high-minded declarations about privacy. That’s because the assertions often come from officials when they are sitting on embarrassing information of clear public value — from the mental health records of killers to in-house product safety findings. They invoke privacy to justify secrecy, and use it as a fig leaf to cover wrongdoing.

So journalism and privacy often get along badly. But now we’re entering quite a different arena of conflict between the two, one that has nothing to do with the “public’s right to know.”

This conflict arises from the reality that the news media most journalists work for are rushing headlong into a new way of making a living. Their new business model is built on systematically plundering information that most of us consider nobody else’s business. Increasingly, news media are coming to depend on quietly gathering private information about their audiences and selling it for private gain.

That is what the Holy Grail of contemporary news media — the successful migration to the Internet — demands. Prosperity on the so-called free Internet depends on advertising, and the superiority of Internet-borne advertising rests on its capacity to be aimed. Whether you’re interested in visiting Thailand, flying kites, voting for Democrats or hunting moose, web operators can know it without your telling them. And they can target you with ads that have some specific, plausible relation to your interests.

How do they know? By compiling and recording data on where you’ve gone on the Web, what you clicked on, what you bought, what terms you entered in to your Google or Yahoo searches, what you read online, what you said in e-mails to friends.

Nice, eh? At the moment, Google, the world’s top search engine — accounting for 65 percent of all U.S. Internet searches — is trying to buy DoubleClick, the world’s top online advertising agency, for $3.1 billion. Several national privacy-advocacy groups are challenging the merger before the Federal Trade Commission out of concern that Google would use the unfathomable amounts of information it compiles and retains about what you and I do on the Internet to serve the needs of DoubleClick’s advertisers to beam ads at people who seem likely to be receptive to them.

All of this depends on collecting and brokering user data, compiling what merger critics called “intimate portraits of … users’ behavior.”

The comment was directed at Google, but the basics of news sites are no different. That means the salaries of journalists will increasingly be paid by operators who are squirreling away information about the people the journalists are supposed to be serving, and using it to “optimize” advertising — to pre-determine maximum vulnerability to persuasive messages and, accordingly, sell advertisers targeted access.

I don’t hear anything about this from journalists. True, some news sites have reasonably thoughtful disclosures — the New York Times’ is an example. Among other things they pledge that third parties (advertisers) get no “personally identifiable” information about you. They don’t get your name, just a catalogue of everything you care about.

The disclosures are commendable, but actually the news sites are doing nothing more than any vaguely principled shopping site does.

And journalists have a radically different problem. They have a professional obligation to protect and serve not their advertisers, but their public. Most newsroom ethics codes even include a duty to respect privacy and avoid needless intrusion.

That doesn’t permit journalists to serve as stalking horses while their paymasters quietly place their readers under surveillance.

What if every page in the newspaper had a camera embedded in it that recorded where the reader’s eye went and how much time it lingered on certain items — and this data were compiled and peddled to advertisers?
That is, increasingly, what happens online. Yet journalists say nothing.
This is a serious conversation that’s way overdue. As one critic of the Google-DoubleClick deal put it: “We think the growth of sophisticated tracking has snuck up on consumers and regulators.”
It has snuck up on journalists too. For them, that ignorance is inexcusable.

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