Promotional Napster stickers in the Napster studio in 2006. (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes, File)
Napster made us expect free content on the Internet and now we are exposed to online advertising privacy breaches because of it. Napster, a music streaming service founded in 1999, enabled an entire generation to discover music on the Internet when a credit card was not required. This blissful experience, combined with the reluctance of other industries (especially printing) to later acknowledge (let alone appreciate) the threat posed by the Internet in good time, led to the awareness of the advertising-based revenue model that we tolerate today.
That famous scene on The Social Network – the 2010 drama about the founding of Facebook – in which Sean Parker, one of the co-founders of Napster, woos Mark Zuckerberg with sushi and advises him to remove “The” from Facebook’s name , was a collision of two numbers that would come to define our experience with the modern internet. One of the Napster co-founders, who informed consumer behavior through piracy and immortalized it on screen, meets a social media prodigy, who then builds on this legacy of illegality with the most famous ad-based platform in human history.
Facebook managed to simulate the free content experience … and our privacy was compromised.
Paywalls and subscriptions are sensible solutions, but must offer exceptional value in this current media environment to be competitive. It is unsettling to think about how expensive these ad-based platforms are. While it is more difficult to attribute election disorder and online harassment to an ad-based model, it is common knowledge that the poor quality of online content is a direct result of dirt cheap ad rates.
The bigger point is how predetermined this ad-based internet was. As mentioned earlier, the foundation of the modern internet was laid by apps like Napster before Facebook or Twitter were ever added. As a result, the house of consumer behavior is now only showing one direction as the concrete was poured by pirates.
Not to be cynical, but no matter how many podcasts Jack Dorsey expects or how often Mark Zuckerberg pampers Holocaust deniers, their actions and policies are dictated by their business models. As with concrete, it sets the framework that influences our experience with the Internet. We have to assume that as users we are now products; We are exchanged as data for dollars. We can clutch pearls we expect from the NSA’s ping cell phone towers to keep track of our metadata. However, if you are not a conspiracy nut then you should realize that they are doing this to keep us safe.
Private companies that buy and sell our data are parasitic leeches that thrive on our indifference. They are the cockroaches in the basement of the house that piracy built. And while the immediate downsides can be anecdotally problematic, the intensity of our concern is disproportionate to how easy it is to cancel a compromised credit card. There’s no immediate equivalent to “buckle up so you don’t fly through the windshield”, but there are scenarios that get pretty bleak in the short term, especially when you factor in facial recognition and physical tracking.
We may be in a strange transition where we don’t have an immediate “fly through the windshield” scenario to get the mainstream to action (Cambridge Analytica only had overtones from it), but things are sure to take a more drastic turn in that Future. Right now, most privacy concerns are hard to confuse with anything other than vanity. Shake them with a narcissism that is both youthful and American and you have a toxic cocktail of your own. One sip and you get Twitter, two sips and you get Tik Tok. Swap Millennials for Gen Z and you’ll get Cancel Culture.
What people really want and need right now is a sense of freedom of choice when it comes to who has their data and what they can do with it. Easier said than done. Due to the flawed foundation of these houses built through piracy, the Byzantine privacy settings in these apps are designed to maximize sales. While I’m sure there have been iterations dealing with the public outcry, they’re the UI equivalent of crocodile tears. They indicate a need for transparency, yet make it easy to collect the data they need to be profitable.
Nobody wants to read through dense legalese, and nobody should have to – not even paralegals. Over time, a new generation of entrepreneurs will have to reset what we had to accept. At the moment we can only take a deep breath, but we can’t even because in this house that piracy built, asbestos particles are floating down from the ceiling.
This death trap is a demolition. It is time for us to move.
Theo is the co-host of Techlash. This week’s guest, Pierre Valade from Jumbo Privacy, is speaking on exactly this topic. Techlash is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you get your shows.