When I politely asked for a universal Internet privacy button — a button that every web app/service would (could? should?) use to indicate that whatever it is you’re doing while it’s on is not being logged or recorded in your personal history or shared with all of your friends, a la Google Chrome’s incognito mode or Spotfiy’s private listening – three apps in particular came to mind: Netflix, Rdio, and Pinterest.
While perhaps we need a new way to talk about privacy — the traditional way we think about it is perhaps less and less suited to the way we use the internet — the drive to share more and do less “alone” isn’t problematic as long as we have granular controls to manage the extent and flow of what we’re sharing, either with companies or other people. That is, as long as we have the ability to make actual choices about how and when we’re sharing things we’ve never shared before, on levels that we’ve never shared them before. The choice to not share sometimes. And those three apps, right now, don’t provide those kinds of choices. You cannot listen to an album privately with Rdio. All your Rdio friends will see it. You cannot make private pin boards in Pinterest, or even semi-private boards for a handful of people. Every board is public. And Netflix does not allow you to delete movies from your history or watch movies without being logged in your viewing history (which is slightly different but still relevant). These three companies are also poster children of the way we’re consuming more and more of our media: via the cloud, accessing the things we love not from our own hard drive, but from a server rack owned by a media company thousands of miles away.
So I asked each of those companies why things were the way they were, and if that was going to change. Pinterest was the only company that provided a really substantial answer, as it’d previously announced a change in its Terms of Service that would “pave the way for new features” like “Private Pinboards.” A spokesperson added:
We are currently working on integrating new privacy options that will give people greater control over what they choose to share publically on the site. We are exploring the possibility of offering private boards but we want to do so in a way that makes privacy terms as simple and clear as possible for our pinners.
Rdio provided a non-statement statement:
Rdio is committed to protecting the privacy of its users. This response only pertains to how listening behavior (i.e. songs played) is shared with other users both in Rdio and outside of Rdio. To read more about our complete policies please click here (http://www.rdio.com/legal/privacypolicy/).
Rdio is about music discovery through people, not machines. A big reason people love Rdio is because they can see and hear what other music fans, critics, labels, artists and influencers like Team Coco or Jake Shears of Scissors Sisters are listening to.
Currently, Rdio offers users the ability to create private playlists as well as opt out of automatically sharing the music they play publicly on Facebook or Last.fm. You’ll continue to see more updates around privacy and your listening habits as we constantly add new features to the service in the future.
And Netflix, in its statements, essentially chose to not answer the question I was asking — why can’t you delete titles from your (viewable) history, like you can with a browser, or watch movies in a way that doesn’t show up in your viewable history? I variously was told by a spokesperson that “the only place you can go see your full viewing history is on the Web site” and “it is good feedback and I will take that to the product team for sure!”
In other words, except for maybe Pinterest, I would not really hold your breath for private modes in these apps anytime soon.
The non-answer answers are in part a function of the way tech companies are forced to talk about themselves, how they’re thinking and what they’re planning: Any substantive answers or real discussion about a product, its shortcomings or future iterations could spiral into a thousand blog posts, maybe a TechMeme headline or two. And they’d rather not be in the news cycle except when they choose to be, like when they’re launching a brand new product that needs attention. Which is unfortunate when there are real issues to talk about, like the true philosophical underpinnings of how these companies think about privacy and sharing.
The other aspect at work here, which I think Nick Bilton scratched the surface of during the uproar over Path collecting its users’ address books, is that Silicon Valley companies fundamentally do not think about privacy in the ways that the rest of us do. While Path did the right thing and deleted the data it collected, its thought process was simply that it was following the “industry best practice” — not that snagging and storing your entire address book without your explicit permission wasn’t something most people wouldn’t be comfortable with. Maybe more to the point, for all of the explicit permissions Apple built into iOS when it comes to allowing apps access to your location, it didn’t build in similar protections to protect your address book (nor has Google with Android). It simply wasn’t a thing they thought about. And it’s not even limited to Silicon Valley companies, per se — a rep for New York-based Foursquare told a crowd at SXSW, “Privacy is a modern invention.” Um, so are civil rights. What’s your point?
And as we’re marched along the road to share more and hide less, we’re also creating discrete footprints of everything we do in a way that we did not — I don’t remember when I read Huck Finn or how many times I played “The Fragile” in high school, but I can tell you how many times I’ve played Polica or exactly when I watched season 3 episode 2 of Mad Men. Perhaps some of these footprints are better left uncrecorded for posterity — we need to able to forget, to be able to make that choice. “This is a thing not worth remembering or sharing.” Because some things really aren’t.