They pile up in my inbox every day, without fail. People who explain to me how they don't want to be "tracked" on the Internet (though when I ask them what the word "track" means in this context, they usually hem and haw and it's pretty clear they haven't really thought this through).
Then there's the more generic ad haters. These are the correspondents who revel in explaining how they haven't seen a Web ad in YEARS thanks to various ad blockers and other tricks, but still use and depend upon the underlying Web services. "Aren't we smart?" "Aren't we clever?"
Aren't you greedy?
More and more, I see how the Internet has become -- through no fault of its own -- a sort of greed amplifier, elevating "something for nothing" from a slogan to a veritable religion.
And increasingly today, "privacy" is being invoked as cover for what is really technologically facilitated avarice.
My perspective on this is partly historical. Looking from the standpoint of the early Internet and contemporaneous network-accessible services, it seemed inconceivable that mass availability of sophisticated Internet-based applications such as we see today could possibly occur on other than a mostly fee-for-service basis.
That an alternative ad-supported model could arise instead was certainly not a foregone conclusion, and even then it took the development of "targeted" ad serving to bump clickthrough rates up to even more generally useful levels.
So from that point of view at least, getting all these services for the "price" of viewing some ads strikes me as a fantastic deal. I grew up with much the same paradigm listening to the radio, and watching television. Commercials can be entertaining or annoying, but the value proposition seemed quite reasonable.
Today, it seems that people don't want to watch any commercials at all -- but they still want to view the programs. They don't even want to manually skip over the ads. So we have folks like DISH trying to turn automatic commercial blocking into a profit center.
A great service for DISH subscribers? Perhaps.
Another illustration of consumer greed in action? Definitely.
And few persons stop to really consider what the implications are of undermining the ad-supported TV model in an all-encompassing manner that remote controls and manual commercial skipping could never natch. Nor have most of us thought about the transfer of even more programming power to Comcast, AT&T, and other pay-television providers that results from this process.
Back on the Net, the Internet greed horse is in some respects long out of the barn.
Attempts to control the unauthorized spread of music and film copies over the Net are -- to put it simply -- doomed. The MPAA and the RIAA can complain and threaten and even cajole (especially to politicians in the last case), but the technological reality is that audio and video can be transcoded, transferred, and hidden in an almost infinite variety of ways. It's the ultimate game of Whac-A-Mole, and there's no reasonable prospect that the entertainment industry is going to win this one.
I don't say this with any glee. I feel that the creators of content deserve to be appropriately compensated for their creations. But that heartfelt belief doesn't change the technological facts on the ground. That war is lost, even if the entertainment industry behemoths desperately wish not to believe that truth.
Much damage can still be done however. Attempts to codify Internet censorship and control regimes in legislation like SOPA and PIPA -- and more legislation sure to come down the pipe at some point -- can be seriously damaging to free speech and basic civil rights.
In the same vein, government cybersecurity legislative efforts such as CISPA -- addressing a real threat but hopelessly co-opted by profiteering -- threaten to genuinely undermine decades of privacy-related progress and and off the Net.
These are real and serious risks to privacy.
So too is so much of what most of us accept in our "brick and mortar" lives. Our financial transactions and commercial purchases are recorded in detail and often made available to third parties with little or no control. Virtually unaccountable credit reporting agencies collect, slice, and dice such data and exert godlike impacts on our day-to-day lives.
There are indeed many ways in which crucial aspects of our lives are at risk from major privacy-related intrusions.
But most of us ignore most of these. And instead, we see people complaining about Web ads, or anonymous targeted ad serving cookies, or technical variations from formal specs that do no actual privacy harm to anyone.
"Web ad tracking" and other Web tracking used to provide suggestions and other services seem to have become synonymous with killing kittens, even though (usually unlike what the credit agencies and their cohorts collect) they're normally not linked to personal information, their data typically isn't sold, and they're only used to serve ads that might be of more interest than a more random throw of the dice.
I talked about some of this a year ago or so in Do-Not-Track, Doctor Who, and a Constellation of Confusion.
What's really fascinating now though, is how this entire area has become not just a political astroturfing battlefield, but is increasingly creating utterly bizarre scenarios.
For example, Microsoft recently announced (apparently in contradiction to earlier assumed agreements) that they were going to set the nebulous "do not track" flag by default in their next version of their Internet Explorer browser.
Mozilla, on the other hand, said that they intended to follow through with their previously stated intention of not making "do not track" a default.
Suddenly, Microsoft -- long viewed by the Internet intelligentsia as just a notch short of Darth Vader or Bain Capital -- is hailed as a hero, and Mozilla, the traditional darling of those in the know, is condemned (along with anyone supporting Mozilla's views on this issue).
Microsoft is pandering of course, but effectively so by tapping into irrational Web ad tracking fears, and into elements of the "something for nothing" greed that -- let's face it -- we all share to one extent or another.
There are naturally exceptions to all of this. There are Web ads that are truly obnoxious -- loud auto-play Flash boxes come immediately to mind.
And there are ways in which Web tracking can become actually abusive, if associated data is inappropriately linked to personal information, or provided to third parties with laxer privacy standards.
But there are many people that no amount of assurance will satisfy. No matter how directly a firm explains how it is not abusing data, there are those observers who won't believe them. They assume the firms are lying. Or that the firms will start lying. Or that the firms will change their minds and suddenly go over to the dark side. "Or maybe ... or maybe ..." -- a veritable cacophony of "maybe fears," for which no amount of auditing or verification would ever be satisfactory.
I have no magic formula to satisfy this category of critics. If you trust a firm, you shouldn't feel the need to micromanage their technical mechanisms, be they cookies or whatever. If you don't trust a firm in the first place, you probably should avoid using their services at all.
We cannot know the future, but trust is still a fundamental aspect of our lives. Trust with our pets. Trust in our intimate moments. And yes, trust in our use of the Internet.
I'm not suggesting that everyone be blindly trustful, any more than I'd assert that everyone is equally greedy.
But I hope that we can regain a sense of proportionality and realism in our addressing of the many genuine privacy concerns. It would well serve the entire Internet community for us not to let political grandstanding and disingenuous attacks manipulate our emotions -- leading us astray from genuinely useful solutions.
There's no need to hide from the mirror, if we're willing to be honest with ourselves.