The Difference Between Right and Wrong

So I just received a very peculiar email from Microsoft. I’ve been using Office 360 for a several months. Before that, I’ve avoided Microsoft products because they seem to require almost weekly updates, and because there are way too many buttons on the company’s bloated office software. So today, as if Tinkerbelle dropped by, I received the message below.

Microsoft’s strategy suggests they plan to take Google’s “don’t be evil” pledge seriously. Microsoft is not going to use my personal information. Microsoft is not going to read my emails, not going to advertise to me based upon my personal communications.

And that got me to thinking. When did I tell Microsoft it was okay to do any of that? In a user agreement that was too complicated, for any reasonable person to understand. And when did I inadvertently provide any software company with permission to invade any reasonable notion of my personal privacy? And where the hell is the protection that I should reasonably from the Federal Trade Commission, every state’s Department of Consumer Affairs, and the Federal and States’ Attorneys General?

Gosh, we are looking at the world upside down. Consumers should be secure in the knowledge that invasion of privacy, and exploitation of our personal communication, is simply against the law. (And that rules of search and seizure reasonably apply and protect us from any unauthorized use.)

I want to believe that the senior executives at Microsoft enjoyed a wonderful offsite and realized that their competitive advantage, their win-back for the masses, is to be completely reasonable. That this, the hired a facilitator and filled a whiteboard, then unanimously endorsed the obvious decision: Microsoft’s senior management decided that the company should not take what ought not be theirs, to apologize for crappy behavior of the past, and to respect their customers and their privacy.

It would be so nice if every software company, social networking company, and organization that believes that aggressive exploitation is the key to business success would, in two simple words, stop it.

Stop it today, before the earth spins another orbit. Just stop it. Figure out how to do business in a way that will make your grandchildren proud, and will allow you to look your dog in the eyes and say, honestly and without compunction, “I did the right thing today.” Executives, please don’t wait until you have a new plan in place. Just stop doing the wrong thing, and shift gears as soon as your business is ready to do so. But stop doing the wrong thing today. Or, if you need more time, I’m okay if you get it done “on or before July 31, 2014.” Which happens to be the date that Microsoft’s new user agreement takes effect. Some highlights:

 Privacy: As part of our ongoing commitment to respecting your privacy, we won’t use your documents, photos or other personal files or what you say in email, chat, video calls or voice mail to target advertising to you.

Transparency: We updated our Code of Conduct so you can better understand the types of behaviors that could affect your account, and added language that parents are responsible for minor children’s use of Microsoft account and services, including purchases.

Simplicity: We tailor our privacy statements for each of our products to help make it easier for you to find the information that is important to you

The Opposite is True

When my car dealer contacted me for a recall, I made an appointment. Then, the weather forecast turned foul, and I needed to find the phone number to reschedule. Quickest way: look up the website. Now, when I visit my usual collection of websites, none of them related to cars or my recall experience, the advertisements promote my car dealer.

Naturally, I don’t perceive this highly-targeted advertising as anything but intrusive. The goodwill and emotional capital that the car dealer has banked with me is now gone. I no longer trust the sites that I visit every day. So we have a perfect lose-lose-lose. The work of a mad scientist that we now accept as perfectly reasonable behavior.

It’s unreasonable, and its growing. One person I know is now receiving telephone calls from websites that he visited. Privacy policies are poorly communicated, and somehow, that’s okay.

I’m fine with a car advertisement, targeted to me, based upon my recent web behavior, BUT ONLY WHEN I APPROVE THIS USE OF MY DATA FOR THIS PURPOSE.

What we need is a change in policy, brought about by well-organized consumer pressure. And if that doesn’t work, what we probably need is new law. That’s not easy to do because laws regarding rights of privacy are difficult to create and even more difficult to enforce.

So what should we do?

First, contact the advertiser and tell them that this practice is bothering you. In many cases, a local advertiser will not completely understand what is happening, why it is happening, how it is impacting their customers and the company’s good name. Most likely, their web advertising is either being controlled by a third party or by an advertising agency. A well-placed email to the owner of the car dealership (in my case) will certainly bring about a colorful internal meeting.

Second, don’t rely upon the Federal government. I just did a Google search (which will, no doubt, result in more unwanted ads) for “consumer protection unwanted web advertisements.” The first result was an FCC page about unwanted faxes (!), and the second was about unwanted telephone calls. So, the Feds have some catching up to do. Instead, handle this by visiting your local state legislator (there’s one whose office is probably in a shopping center not five miles from where you live or work). The first relevant site: number ten on the list, a company called Abine. Theyre based in Boston, backed by serious investors, operated by a credible team, and clear on their role:

Since its launch, Abine has emerged as the online privacy leader. And now that we’re on a roll, we’ve recruited a team committed to giving our users a more private web experience. Our engineers are building the next generation of web tools, our marketing and press teams are advocates for change, and our support and operations staff go beyond service to provide daily advice to those navigating the complexities of online privacy.

Feeling good about what they’ve written on the web is one thing, but the necessary action is to download their app, and for this, one must provide some personal information. Yes, there’s a Better Business Bureau bug at the bottom of the page, and yes, their blog does a fine job in explaining, for example, the latest Target credit card debacle, but at this point, I’m not sure who I ought to trust. When I download their software, will I make the situation worse? Or are they one of the good guys? What if they’re hacked? Does that release a storm of additional refuse throughout the internet, all with their users’ names on it?

Gosh, we have allowed ourselves into a mighty mess. And we continue to feed the monster with more personal data every day, gently forgetting to remind ourselves that the data entered into one site is easy connected to the credit card purchase made two weeks ago, and the EZ-Pass data and the gas station data and the ATM data, and the list goes on. And everything we want to do online, or in an app, requires just a teeny bit more disclosure.

If there is an advertisement on this blog, you’ll have to tell me because, as a writer, I don’t see anything except a word processing screen. And if there is an advertisement that connects your personal web behavior to your reading this website, that makes me part of the problem. Which makes this whole web journalism thing that much more complicated. But we will get nowhere if we just accept the present-day reality, which isn’t good. We do need to change it. And that begins with articles like this one, and with your comments and ideas.

From Abine’s media kit, a comparison chart. It’s fascinating to see the list (left side) of issues to date, and the sheer number of solutions indicated by the green check marks. Clearly, I’m late to this party. But at least I’m here now, and paying attention. (You are, too, but I guess you knew that. Your computer and a dozen other websites certainly do now.)

full_privacy_tool_comparison_chart

Your New Digicar Subscription

Ford Model T, circa 1910. Buy it for $850 or rent it for 10 cents a mile.

Ford Model T, circa 1910. By 1916, you could buy one for $850 or rent one for 10 cents a mile.

Robotic cars that drive themselves–that’s the comic book version of the future currently in advanced stages of development at Google, Mercedes-Benz, and, I would guess, just about every significant vehicle and technology maker on earth. Before the end of the 2020s, these cars will be as common as a Toyota Prius. In theory, cars that drive themselves will reinvigorate the automotive industry.

But that’s not the big story.

For a moment, think about your telephone(s). In your pocket or bag, you carry an expensive digital multi-purpose device that multitasks as a telephone, messaging center, emailer, web browser, camera, clock… so on. At home, you may still pay for a relatively stupid device that is little more than an old school telephone. Which one will go away? Easy answer.

Now, transpose that thinking to the car of the future. It’s foolish to impose old expectations on a new paradigm. A digital car will probably reinvent the whole idea of cars as well as our relationship with personal vehicles. We saw the start of this idea with rental cars. ZipCars showed up in the US around 2000, an idea borrowed from Europe. City dwellers and college students are Zip’s best customers because the opportunity to pay a membership fee for occasional use of a car is more sensible than owning, maintaining, parking, and otherwise caring for a physical product. In essence, ZipCar transfers the customer relationship from product purchase to service/subscription.

From last weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

Brace yourself. In a few years, your car will be able to drop you off at the door of a shopping center or airport terminal, go park itself, and return when summoned with a smartphone app.”

Presumably, the new cars won’t crash–saving enough lives to repopulate Newport, Rhode Island or Key West, Florida every year, and then some.

From the same WSJ article:

private vehicles spend 90% of their time parked and unoccupied

Let’s pull together several ideas. Texting while driving is just plain dumb. And yet, for most people, driving a car is less interesting than playing with an iPhone. If there was some way to move from place to place and allow texting (or emailing, playing a game, or learning), that might be preferable to our 2013 status quo. Me, I’m happier reading a book than doing daily battle with aggressive trucks exceeding the interstate’s speed limit. Let my digicar’s radar system, wide-baseline stereoscopic camera, massive processing power (think: computer chess applied to the calculus of high-speed traffic or crazy curvy country roads). Let vehicles talk to one another (“hey, I’m in the wrong lane–would you please slow down so that I can make that right hand turn coming 2.348 feet at longitude X and latitude Y?” “sure, anytime, have a nice day”)

How does EZ-Pass and privacy fit into all of this? For those who still honestly believe that their travels are not easily recorded, stored and compared with every shopping receipt, it’s both another loss of freedom and another realization that privacy is something that one cannot easily or simply protect in a digital age. Certainly, this information could become the property of bad people (or governments or large corporations, who may or may not define ‘reasonable’ as individuals do).

A digital car would certainly know where it is going, where it has been, and where it needs to go. And it would know, and record, passenger identities. When traveling, we’ve been balancing time, money and privacy for a long time. Here’s the current situation–consider how similar a digicar service and the “rental” of your airline seat can be:

If I want to travel from Times Square to Hollywood, I can drive for about 40 hours (more, if there’s traffic, but my digicar might know how to circumvent it). If I drive 8 hours/day, that’s 5 days of driving, 4 hotel nights (about $500), and 2,800 miles (100 gallons of gas, or about $400 worth), plus wear-and-tear of about $200 (if all goes well)–5 days of my life plus over a $1,000 of my money. I could take the train for 20 hours and spend about $450, but if I want to sleep on the train, it’s 43 hours and $1,200, plus the time and money required to get to and from the train stations. If I fly, my time expense is about 8 hours door-to-door and my dollar expense is $500 including ground transportation. Train and air travel requires me to surrender personal information about my identity and my precise travel plans; car travel does not (except when I use a credit card to fill the tank, which I will do about 8 times, pay a toll with EZ-Pass, or sleep in a hotel, or eat, making it easy to track my progress).

A long paragraph for a short idea: we routinely exchange privacy for time and money. Are we ready to surrender those expensive machines that sit idle all but 10% of their lives. Is the car of the future more likely to be a product (buy one at your local Ford dealer) or a service (lease one with an app, or sign up for a rental subscription service).

The answer is pretty clear to me. After the vehicle drops me off at the supermarket, I don’t much care what it does or where it goes, and, in most situations, I don’t  care whether it’s Holly, Dolly, Lolly, Molly or Folly The Digital Car that picks me up when I’m ready to go home. I just want to know that it will be there, on time, clean, reliable, capable, and right-sized for my needs (smaller if I have no bags). If I need the car for an extended period, I’m sure I could pay a higher subscription rate, perhaps by the month or year, perhaps by the trip. Will I be able to reserve? Will the vehicle show up? What if we get lost? What if there aren’t enough cars?

How many cars is enough cars? Right now, we’ve got about a billion cars for about seven billion people on planet earth–but that’s only because China’s ratio is about 7 people to one vehicle (in the US, it’s about 1.3 people per car).

More cars, more roads, more paved-over nature, more crowded national parks, more traffic jams, more stress on an interstate infrastructure that’s already stressed. Fewer cars? How about more efficient use of the whole idea of cars? Think about my imperfect math: if every car’s use was doubled in its efficiency, and was used 50% of the time, maybe we could reduce the number of cars on the planet by a third or more. If the cars were smart enough to avoid accidents, there would be no more time or energy spent on drinking and driving, or texting while driving, and no more arguments between teenagers who are probably too young to drive and parents who are terrified every time their child backs up out of the driveway.

For details about specific companies and their progress, click on the Wall Street Journal’s car below.

WSJ Car

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