Brothers, Big and Small

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
26 June, 2018
Editorial: 214
Fecha de publicación original: 9 mayo, 2000

The fool thought he had friends when they were really just after his wine

Big Brothers are multiplying as fast as mushrooms in the wet season. And I am not referring to any recent television experiences that have aroused the watchman in all of us, but rather to real assaults on our privacy which place the personal information of millions in the hands of a select few. As Aldous Huxley put it in his brilliant introduction to “Brave New World”, the most dangerous kind of democracy is that in which we accept the internal exposure of ourselves and we agree by consensus on either dropping an atomic bomb on the “baddies” or handing over our privacy to the state. All, of course, in the name of social welfare. Today, thanks to the Internet, we are prepared to surrender our privacy on a silver platter without a bean in compensation. A British company proposes that we install a programme in our computers that will trace where each click we make on the Net takes us. Its immediate objective is to measure audiences on the Net with the ease and reliability of TV ratings. The hidden agenda is to open a window onto the privacy of every internaut the possibilities of which are as yet unknown.

The new system is not only able to tell where we go on the Internet and how often, but also who we are and how we got there. The company who invented it claims that by the end of this year they will be able to measure 90% of Internet audiences in 30 countries. The programme, appropriately named Insight, was developed jointly by ACNielsen eRatings –which is a subsidiary of the giant ACNielsen– and Silicone Valley’s NetRatings. Once installed, Insight follows every click made by the user. When it has gathered a certain amount of information it sends this back to the company’s California control centre. So, what is this information? Where we have been and where we are going? Yes, but that’s not all. It also takes note of the advertising we have seen, any business transactions we have made and what these may be worth. Moreover, this scanning can be conducted in real time or recorded later.

This, shall we say, is the basic menu. However, as ACNielsen eRatings president Bill Pulver says, the programme could incorporate all sorts of other measuring devices. For instance, the “banner” we get to see every time we visit a web page if it detects that we are “repeaters”. Insight enables advanced demographic information to be gathered concerning the two sources of income which are beginning to take shape on the Net: advertising and promotions on the one hand, and e-commerce on the other. In both cases, companies need to know enough about visitors to be able to convert them into consummate consumers. And present methods have too many holes in them. Insight as well, and lots of them. Its criteria for measuring audience rating is, as I said earlier, very similar to that of TV: from a sample group a massive projection is made based on reliable measuring methodology. But it remains a projection. In the case of TV, the range of options is limited by the number of channels. Not so the Net. Consequently, there are many more imperfections in the resulting demographic pyramid, not only because it is based on supposed buying habits. However, it must be said, that the aforementioned programme is much more thorough than any of the others in use up to now. It is nevertheless, just one more attempt, like the many tried out over the last three years, to customise users and to view them one-sidedly as “homo credit cardium”.

The interesting thing about Insight is that it relies on the active participation of internauts, who have to install it on their machine with the appropriate information, while also accepting that the data it gathers is sent to the company who owns it. At present, 50.000 US citizens are under permanent Insight scrutiny 24 hours a day, 9.000 have accepted this “spying eye” in Great Britain and 250.000 others in 30 other countries are awaiting their turn. Up until now, the information collected has been pretty run of the mill: navigation time, timetable preferences, etc. By the end of the year a clearer picture of some other habits will be starting to emerge and, above all, comparative data that will, according to the company, be vital in determining strategies for companies operating on the Internet.

By then, we will have to begin to define how far-reaching this, or other similar programmes, have become as they continue to be installed in offices or homes, for personal or professional use, because, in one case or the other, the information provided will be more useful than that which just defines the consumer habits of internauts. Obviously, if millions of users agree to be watched inside and out, that will be enough of an indication of what privacy policies connected to the Internet will be like. Nevertheless, as we have said on other occasions, neither Insight nor any other similar programme tell us what is really important about Internet usage and that is the information that interests us, where we extract it from, what we do with it and to what extent we modify the shape of the Net itself through the binomial of “our participation/relationships with others”. This is what we will be talking about over the next few weeks.

Translation: Bridget King