The New York Times has started “The Privacy Project” and kicks off the story correctly with an introspective opinion piece from the boss, A.G. Sulzberger. We should do the same.
Over the past few years, The New York Times has reported aggressively on the erosion of digital privacy, bringing information to light about the exploitation of personal data that Facebook amassed on its users, about companies buying and selling children’s data, and about phone apps secretly tracking users’ every movement. That reporting helped spur global debate about how society should protect privacy in digital spaces.
Yet all of this journalism was paid for, in part, by The Times’s engaging in the type of collecting, using and sharing of reader data that we sometimes report on. As with a politician railing against high drug prices while accepting campaign donations from big pharma, a news organization cannot talk about privacy on the internet without skeptical readers immediately, and rightly, examining its own practices for signs of hypocrisy. So, as we kick off The Privacy Project, I wanted to share a bit about how The Times itself approaches reader data and privacy.
Like virtually every business on the internet, we collect, use and share data about readers. We make money by using that data to sell advertisements and subscriptions, often working with other companies like Google and Facebook, which allows us to sustain a 1,600-person news operation that reports from more than 150 countries every year.
Google, Facebook, Spotify and their fellow data lords have to a large extent got some pretty big players over a barrel: They are all dependent to some extent on Google and Facebook’s business model built on the twin pillars of addiction and surveillance. Artists and songwriters should think about their own role in this unhealthy cycle that feeds on human vulnerabilities and dopamine dependency. Like the Times, artists drive fans into the waiting arms of data lords who scrape, segment and serve up behavioral data in darkness while fans are focused on content.
In the case of the Times it is content the paper creates and serves up on its own web properties. But in the case of artists and songwriters, it is the music that the creator or their label or publisher at least ostensibly license to a platform. And that’s a big difference, because unless that license is a statutory mandate, licenses have a term. Statutory licenses are favored by platforms (see Music Modernization Act Title I) because the service can force creators to license their works and that license can essentially never be terminated–even iHeart got away with not paying royalties through reorganization bankruptcy followed by an IPO once those messy obligations were washed away through the courts.
Artists are very familiar with another version of this story that we fought and still fight with brand-sponsored piracy. In that ecosystem–which still exists on a large scale–companies like Google sell advertising on pirate sites that is served against stolen music or movies and then get data served back to them through analytics tools. (This is why I often say that it’s not that Google pays a low royalty, they actually pay a negative royalty when you take into account their profit from piracy.)
But data scraping of fans that artists drive to licensed platforms is a less frequent topic of discussion. Like the Times, creators should start thinking about the role they play in driving fans to the clutches of the data lords. As Mr. Sulzberger says:
The Times…maintains clear internal guidelines about how such data is collected and used. But this control is often more limited than it seems because in many cases, the news organizations that host the trackers don’t know what happens with that information once it is transferred to third parties. Those companies include major platforms like Google and Facebook, smaller companies you’ve never heard of that act as analytics providers and advertising intermediaries, and the individual companies that place individual advertisements. Readers may understandably wonder: What data do these companies have? To whom might they sell it? How might those buyers exploit it?
I ask myself those questions, too, as a publisher and as a person who uses the internet.
I suggest that it’s time to stop asking questions and start demanding answers. We at least can try to cut them off.