The Privacy Competition Myth

In his non-book-review of Garret Keizer’s new book, Privacy, “Reason” Magazine correspondent includes this ill-informed quip on privacy:

With regard to modern commerce, Mr. Keizer grumps: “We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state.” Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

There is almost no market for privacy among merchants. Companies learned long ago that raising privacy as an issue backfires–it causes consumers to worry about it rather than feel safe about an alternative product. Whether online or offline, going to a competitor doesn’t increase your privacy, in real or perceived terms. It’s simply too easy to hide invasive practices from consumers.

Our work at Berkeley shows the folly of simply going to a different site in order to have more privacy. Here’s just one example, in our Web Privacy Census, we did a large-scale survey of popular websites in order to assess mercantile snooping and excessive tracking. Of the most popular 1,000 websites, Google trackers are present on 712 of them. Good luck finding a competitor who is more respectful of your privacy.