- Commercial needs and user expectations collide for privacy-focused company DuckDuckGo
- For Big Tech, success is tightly bound to developing techniques to muddy the waters over privacy—legally and in its interface designs
- Meanwhile, Big Tech fights a parallel battle over users’ right to repair their devices
Selling Privacy As a Feature Isn’t Easy
Privacy is a powerful marketing tool, but it leaves any company touting its privacy credentials vulnerable if the company appears to fall short of its promises. One privacy researcher has accused DuckDuckGo’s mobile browser of allowing Microsoft trackers for its products LinkedIn and Bing on sites that aren’t Microsoft-owned. DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg’s efforts to defend and clarify highlight the increased complexity of tracking users’ behavior from one website to another—and how hard it is for a company to offer online privacy without compromising aspects of it to generate revenue. There’s a deeper take on the controversy from ZeroHedge. [Editor’s note: DuckDuckGo is a donor to The Markup.]
Weaving Dark Patterns for Personal Data
A survey of privacy policies by Security.org, a security and privacy website, concluded that Google collects 39 data points on each user, including “name, phone number, payment information if you have made any purchases through Google, email address, emails you send and receive, films, photographs, documents, and spreadsheets you have stored, and your YouTube comments.” And to ensure that this data can be collected, tech companies have gone to great lengths to gain users’ consent, often through presenting misleading user interfaces. These online strategies, called dark patterns, “undermine individual autonomy,” argues The Regulatory Review, part of the Penn Program on Regulation.
But this “manipulation” is possibly viewed another way—as an inevitable innovation in an industry that competes for users’ attention and data. Indeed, the industry dependent on personal data is one that has been thus far viewed and regulated not through a political lens but through a capitalist one, where it is seen “not only as a productive source of innovation, but as a reliable regulator of market participants too: a self-correcting ecosystem which can be trusted to contain the worst excesses of its participants,” in the words of Jamie Susskind, a London-based lawyer and the author of a forthcoming book on regulating digital technologies. “In this context we can, albeit dimly, view the political battle-lines that are now being drawn for this century,” Susskind concludes. Efforts in the U.S. to find statutory solutions continue meanwhile: A new House bill wants to create a Big Tech regulatory agency.
Privacy and the Right to Repair
This debate over privacy of data has a parallel in a debate over our devices. The question revolves around this: When will users truly own our devices—so we could, for example, fix or tinker with them ourselves? Apple has long fought right-to-repair legislation and is kicking and screaming where those fights have failed. Here’s what that looks like in practice: shipping a 79-pound iPhone repair kit to fix a 1.1-ounce battery, charging the same price for a new battery that the replacement and installation would cost at an Apple store, and levying a $1,200 credit card hold for the toolkit.
That’s not the main problem, though, argues iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens: While it provides tools and manuals, Apple has a strategy of pairing specific parts to a specific phone. So replacing a screen, for example, may mean the device would not work as well as it did with the original screen. These “cryptographic locks” are explained in more detail by Lee Vinsel, a professor at Virginia Tech and a co-founder of The Maintainers, a research network focused on maintenance and repair issues.
Other big tech companies are doing better: Microsoft, under pressure from shareholders, is exploring measures for right to repair and has found that repairability offers greater environmental benefits. Google has promised more ways to repair its Pixel phone, though there’s criticism it hasn’t gone far enough. And it’s nothing like some companies: Valve has made parts for its handheld gaming computer Steam Deck available to third parties to help them repair and even upgrade the device. But so far such examples are rare and more usually found on the fringes.
Jeremy Wagstaff, formerly a technology journalist with Reuters and columnist with The Wall Street Journal, now works as a writer and consultant. Past clients have included Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Samsung, and Facebook. He has no current clients among, or financial interest in, any companies in the Fortune 500.