Most of us at ProtonMail are part of the last generation born before the World Wide Web was created in 1989 at CERN in Switzerland. In the last 25 years, the web has transformed our world and we now spend more and more of our lives online. A lot of good has certainly resulted from the internet revolution, but one important freedom that has become lost in the process is our right to privacy. While a lot of attention has been placed on government mass surveillance (NSA, GCHQ, etc.), a much more widespread form of privacy invasion is actually coming from the private sector.
Current Model of Internet Businesses
To gain insight into why our privacy is eroding, let’s take a look at the economic system that fuels many of the internet giants of today. Anyone with an internet connection can read the latest news, listen to their favorite music, chat with friends, and search for anything online – all for free. On the surface, we are not paying for these services that have become essential in our digital lives. So how do internet companies afford to pay lavish salaries and build sprawling campuses in some of the most expensive parts of the world? By capitalizing on your data.
“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been.
We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, 2010
To get a picture of what is at stake, in 2013, Yahoo had $4.7 billion in revenue, of which 79% came from advertisements. Facebook’s haul was a bit larger at $7.9 billion, of which 89% came from advertisements. Google dwarfed them all, with 91% of its $55.5 billion revenue coming from advertisements.
Implications of Advertisements
Advertisements are more effective, and thus more valued, when they are targeted to certain consumers at certain times. For example, a video game company would pay more to show their ads to gamers. However, an even better ad is targeted to someone who is currently searching for related games. Naturally, companies that primarily depend on the advertisement business model are motivated to track, save, and learn as much as possible about their users. Under pressure to hit quarterly targets, these companies will continue to push privacy boundaries and increase their surveillance on everything we do to gain an advertising edge.
As users of these “free” services, we are really paying with our data and privacy. From the service provider’s point of view, the real customers are the businesses paying for the advertisements. We are just the products that get sold to the highest bidder. Ultimately this is bad business because the interests of companies and consumers are not aligned.
Implications of Big Data Technology
While advertisement revenue is the motivation behind more and more invasion of our privacy, big data technology is the hammer that drives the nail into the coffin. Increasingly cheap and more capable storage technologies allow businesses to save every bit of data they can get. Our browsing history, our GPS coordinates and even our key strokes as we type an email all can get saved. The everlasting nature of this data has dire consequences: it allows our privacy to be abused far into the future.
The software technology that makes sense of our data will continue to improve, boosted by the growing amount of data and faster hardware. We are already seeing speech and image recognition systems that rival humans in certain tasks. In another 25 years, it is inevitable that there will be widespread use of systems that can easily combine our data from disparate sources and infer rather surprising things. Our most intimate data, controlled by those whose interests are not aligned with ours, coupled with much more powerful analysis programs, could lead to mass discrimination, suppression, and general loss of freedom.
A New Model for Internet Businesses
At the end of the day, privacy and targeted advertising are just fundamentally incompatible concepts. In order to protect privacy in the internet era, we must transition away from an advertising driven internet economy. At ProtonMail, this is exactly what we are doing. Because we cannot read your encrypted emails, we will never serve targeted advertisements. Instead, ProtonMail will operate on a subscription model and generate revenue from users who want premium accounts with additional storage and special features. We also believe everyone deserves the right to privacy so we will always have free accounts with all security and privacy features.
Our only customers are you, the users, so we will always put your interests above everything else. This is how we believe a truly responsible web service should be run. With your support, we can show the world that this is a viable alternative and in the process, encourage more online businesses to adopt a model that protects privacy.
The ProtonMail Team
To learn more, you can also watch our TED Talk on privacy and technology.
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