When it comes to privacy, we’re all like frogs being slowly boiled!

We all know the story about the frog in a slowly heating pot of water. The water heats up gradually, and the frog doesn’t notice that it’s being boiled. The moral of the story is that we fail to notice incremental changes that become inescapable once they pile up.


This story well describes how our increasing use of software and Internet services draws us into an ever-tightening mesh that exploits and shreds our privacy, piles on risks, and from which there is no escape.


When we buy a physical product, say, an electrical drill, we completely control what we bought. We own it, we can use it, change it, loan it out, sell it, or even destroy it. Whoever made it or sold it to us has lost all control and rights. In most cases they don’t even know about us.


With software and the Internet, all this has changed. The software and service providers impose a myriad of conditions on us that control our relationship with what we think we bought or were free to use. We don’t actually buy software; we just license it at conditions few of us examine. By using Internet services, we’re agreeing to privacy statements and terms of service that are far more onerous than most of us realize, that are written in inscrutable legalese, and that are a far cry from conditions of using standard product purchases.


The excitement of new products and services, our curiosity, and our desire to be avant-garde and cool lure us to try out all these wonderful digital innovations. In many ways, they enrich us, entertain us, and make our lives easier. But just like with the frogs in the heating water, they slowly but unrelentingly invade our privacy, enmesh us into webs of relationships that limit our choices, and become impossible to escape.


This forthcoming series of blogs is an invitation to explore the changes our increasing use of software and Internet services are bringing to our relationships with products and services.


To get started, let’s look at the different kinds of relationships we’re entering into in this brave new world.


These relationships have several distinct dimensions. While each dimension has its own cost, together they constitute an inescapable web with uncalculatable cost. We’ll address each of those in separate blogs. For starters, let’s take a quick look.


Language and structure: Each software provider writes its own end-user license agreement (EULA), and service providers write their own terms of service (ToS) and privacy statements. They are all different. We’re being admonished to read them carefully. Yet they are written in dense legal language that require legal training to fully comprehend. Their length, often exceeding 10,000 words, would require hours for a thorough review. And these are supposed to be consumer products and services?


Data exposure and privacy loss: When we buy an ordinary physical product, we can remain anonymous, and nobody will know what we do with it. (More recently, though, some manufacturers are trying to end the anonymity by associating services with their products, and by demanding our e-mail address “in case of questions”.) Use of most Internet services implies data collection resulting in advertising, most of it personalized, and an avalanche of junk mail. Much of the data is also fed into the maws of the data broker industry. The most invasive results of this surveillance are our digital twins that some of the big tech companies create from all the data, and that they use to influence us. With techniques such as digital fingerprinting there is no escape.


Rights, quality promise & entitlements: For most physical products, the rights of purchasers are defined by law, covering areas from standards to liability and warranty. Once we bought something, there are almost no limits to what we can do with it.


A common legal framework for Internet services does not exist. The relationship between users and service providers is dictated by the service providers with ‘a take it or leave it’ attitude. Emerging privacy laws vary widely across jurisdictions and are difficult to interpret and enforce.


Consumer software and Internet services typically disclaim any warranty and come with a statement that they may not be “fit for purpose”. The poor quality of the software is illustrated by the continuous flow of bug fixes we’re receiving with updates. For software and Internet services, the EULAs and the terms of service impose serious limits on the way we can use them.


Risks


While Internet service providers typically don’t guarantee anything to their users, their services come with substantial risks.


Identity theft: Identity theft has serious consequences and requires painstaking work to remedy. Consumers have little recourse, with the result that service providers have little incentive to act more responsibly protecting consumer data.


Responsibilities and liabilities: For some Internet services such as use of video cameras, consumers are on their own to determine the conditions under which their use is legal in their community. They may also be liable to service providers’ legal costs under complex conditions.


Data loss: When cloud services fail or shut down, consumers can lose the data they stored there.


Lock-in / cost of change: With traditional products, there is no lock-in or cost associated with changing a brand. In contrast, software products and Internet services often use proprietary data formats or store data in the cloud that make it onerous to change to different products or services. Social media services are locking consumers’ relationships with their friends and communities into their walled gardens.


Payment & cost: For most physical products, there is a single, fixed monetary cost. Services often incur recurring cost, even when they are not being used. While the large Internet ecosystems don’t always ask for monetary payments, the value they extract from consumer data far exceeds what most people would be willing to pay if it were apparent to them.


Product / service life: Some traditional products, such as books, can have infinite service lives. Other products’ service lives are just subject to wear and tear. In contrast, digital products’ service lives are limited by the obsolescence of their operating systems and hardware platforms, or by the service provider’s unilateral decisions.


Function creep: With traditional products what you buy is what you get. Period. Internet services or products with associated services try to burrow ever deeper into our lives. Wearables start out as watches and then morph into nannies watching our movements and nagging us to do things or refrain from actions without being asked and without understanding the context of our lives. Voice assistants are looking to take over greater aspects of our home with every release. E-mail services look to take over all our communication, from mail to text to voice.


Over the coming months, we'll publish blogs examining these dimensions in more detail. We’re inviting you to join us to discuss their significance and impact.


The first blog will take a more detailed look at the language and the structure of the license agreements, service agreements, and privacy statements. Please come back to check them out or subscribe to our blogs and enrich the conversation.

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