Why People Probably Won't Pay to Keep Their Web History Secret


Historically, privacy has rarely been a priority. Frequently, it's a luxury. For most people, it hasn't been possible at all.

AT&T is conducting an experiment in how much money Americans will pay for privacy. If consumers in Kansas are willing to pay an extra $30 per month for super-fast fiber-optic Internet access, the telecom giant won’t track their online browsing for targeted ads. It turns out, most people opt for the cheaper service, according to AT&T.

"Since we began offering the service more than a year ago the vast majority have elected to opt-in to the ad-supported model," Gretchen Schultz, a spokeswoman for AT&T, told me. In other words, most people are willing to give up privacy in exchange for a lower price tag.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, it is how humans have behaved for more than 3,000 years.

Privacy was not an issue in hunter-gather societies, because it wasn't even a possibility. “Privacy is something which has emerged out of the urban boom coming from the industrial revolution,” explained Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf at a Federal Trade Commission event in 2013. "Privacy may actually be an anomaly."

Our tribal ancestors regularly bathed, breastfed, and had sex in front of their friends and family. The anthropologist Jared Diamond explained the mating habits of one southeast tribe, in The World Until Yesterday. "Because hunter-gather children sleep with their parents, either in the same bed or in the same hut, there is no privacy.”

As tribes grew into cities, and cities in a globalized world, the need for privacy likewise expanded from keeping secrets from family members to keeping secrets from neighboring strangers and multinational corporations. At each expanding interval, humans were faced with both the capacity for privacy and incentive to reveal information.

We know that the technological capacity for privacy developed along with the mathematical prowess of the Ancient Greeks, who used their sophisticated understanding of geometry to design houses that maximized light exposure, while minimizing public views from the street. After Greece collapsed, the Romans happily borrowed the Greek's philosophy, but not their penchant for privacy.

"Think of Ancient Rome as a giant campground,” writes Angela Alberto in A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. Even the Roman rich, who could afford larger houses, ceded their privacy. It was a cultural expectation that the Roman aristocracy would open up their homes to events. The famed "peristyle" open-architecture of Roman mansions turned their private dwellings into a constant museum tour.

"Great fortune has this characteristic, that it allows nothing to be concealed, nothing hidden; it opens up the homes of princes, and not only that but their bedrooms and intimate retreats, and it opens up and exposes to talk all the arcane secrets," complained Pliny the Younger, a Roman author who was alive in the first century A.D., according to a translation of his letters by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, an honorary Roman Studies professor at Cambridge.

The lower socioeconomic class of western society didn't really even get the chance at privacy within the home until architects started building houses with internal walls around the 15th century. And, to be sure, it wasn't primarily motivated because medieval Europeans wanted privacy. Internal walls were designed, in part, to keep the nasty smoke from central fire pits from choking the house guests.

“There was no classical or medieval latin word equivalent to ‘privacy.’ Privatio meant ‘a taking away,’” wrote Georges Duby, author of the epic five-volume set, A History Of Private Life.

But perhaps what humans want most today is information privacy. The idea of recorded information is relatively new. Mass literacy is only a few hundred years old. And, the technology to transmit ideas to foreign regions is even newer. But we know how America reacts when information technologies are introduced.

By the 18th century, America had grown accustomed to some information privacy. The pony express was delivering mail across the great plains in opaque folds of paper, free from the prying eyes of government spies and nosy neighbors. Then, the postcard was introduced. Cheaper and quicker, they were an instant success. In 1908, the Post Office had sent almost 7.5 postcards for every living American (670 million).

Interestingly enough, in The Atlantic's early years (1914), one writer remarked about how brazenly revealing some consumers were on the open face of a postcard:

There is a lady who conducts her entire correspondence through this channel. She reveals secrets supposed to be the most profound, relates misdemeanors and indiscretions with a reckless disregard of the consequences. Her confidence is unbounded in the integrity of postmen and bell-boys, while the latter may be seen any morning, sitting on the doorsteps of apartment houses, making merry over the post-card correspondence.

The next generation was faced with a similar choice with the introduction of the telephone. Individual lines were prohibitively expensive, so many consumers opted for so-called "party lines," which were a single line shared by houses in close proximity. Anyone could listen in, and it was common for eavesdropping to seed neighborhood gossip.

“Party lines could destroy relationships…if you were dating someone on the party line and got a call from another girl, well, the jig was up," wrote the author Donnie Johnson. "Five minutes after you hung up, everybody in the neighborhood — including your girlfriend — knew about the call. In fact, there were times when the girlfriend butted in and chewed both the caller and the callee out. Watch what you say.”

Time and time again, with the invention of new technologies, humanity has opted for low cost, convenience, or fame over privacy. Just last year, the performance artist Risa Puno managed to convince attendees at a Brooklyn Art festival to give away their private data, such as their social security number or their fingerprints, for a delicious cinnamon cookie.

So, while privacy may be valued, at least theoretically, it has rarely been the top priority. Given the choice between access to technology and protecting one’s privacy—many people will choose the technology. And as technologies becomes further enmeshed with our daily lives, there will likely be more opportunities to give access to bits of our individual information and personal lives in exchange for discounts, novel products, or Internet fame. I think we already know what most Americans will decide.

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)