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Can we talk in private? | On privacy and the OMR festival

Phew... it has been an exhausting week of conferences with Google, Microsoft, and Facebook holding th
On My Mind
Can we talk in private? | On privacy and the OMR festival
By Martin Wiesemborski • Issue #3 • View online
Phew… it has been an exhausting week of conferences with Google, Microsoft, and Facebook holding their annual developer conference, and will take me some time to catch up to all the exciting news and product announcements. At the same time two big conferences took place in Germany: re:publica and Online Marketing Rockstars.
And while the major theme for the tech giant’s keynotes was around privacy, it was nowhere to be found at Europes biggest conference on the topic of online marketing. 

Katharina Barley, Minister of Justice, talking about EU's digital policies
Katharina Barley, Minister of Justice, talking about EU's digital policies
The hottest thing in Silicon Valley: Privacy
In the last few years, privacy became one of the biggest topics in Silicon Valley. One of the strongest supporters is Apple, whose business model is not based around using or selling user data, but instead selling premium hardware with tight software integration, making it easy for them to position themselves as a leader in privacy.
Apple - with Tim Cook in the lead - even started publicly shaming companies like Google and Facebook for how they’re handling user data. At the same, they were inventing ways to run neural networks (and ML in general) on-device instead of online, thereby leaving sensible user data where it belongs - on the user’s device, not a company’s server farm.
It has become the recurrent theme for all new product and service announcements at Apple: From FaceID as a more secure way to protect your iPhone, to dedicated security chips, to Apples communication in general, the way they handle financial transaction with Apple Pay and Apple Card, how they are collecting and storing health data on-device, or the Core ML API for developers to use for on-device Machine Learning.
Still the best "privacy" icon, showing trust is at the core of privacy.
Still the best "privacy" icon, showing trust is at the core of privacy.
Join the movement
But it’s not only Apple. For a long time now, Mozilla has been on the forefront of browsing securely and in private, building Firefox to be a privacy-first browser. So does Opera. It’s an interesting shift in the browser market, where it used to be all about speed and reliability- now privacy features are the ones that make the difference.
And there are many more examples to be found for this tectonic shift in Silicon Valley. Which brings us to Facebook.
A new chapter for Facebook
After several security breaches, Facebook is facing severe trust issues. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, among many others, changed the public opinion of the company and data protection in general.
Recently, people like Elizabeth Warren (US Senator, running for president in 2020) and Chris Hughes (Co-Founder of Facebook) are even demanding that Facebook has to be split up into several companies because it leverages its monopoly power against the users’ will.
So for Facebook, it is crucial to change course - no small deal for a company with almost 2 billion users spread across a handful of platforms. In his opening keynote at F8, Facebook’s developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg tried to convince the world of his “privacy-first” vision and how Facebook plans to shift its business model and offerings (he also tried to be funny - it didn’t work).
Zuckerberg said that Facebook is developing new features like end-to-end encryption in messaging and completely re-building its technical infrastructure based around six principles: Private Interactions, Encryption, Reduced Permanence, Safety, Interoperability and Secure Data Storage.
Mark's "privacy-first" vision
Mark's "privacy-first" vision
By highlighting Facebook’s efforts on privacy, Zuckerberg tried to show good will and is probably hoping to stop further investigations and congressional hearings.
There were many more interesting product-related announcements at F8, like the redesign of the Facebook platform that looks like the combination of every dribbble shot ever, changes to how you post on Instagram, new features for Messenger and WhatsApp, and much more (which I will cover in a future issue), but “We hear loud and clear that you want your privacy back” has definitely been the core message.
However, Zuckerberg also admitted they still have a long journey to go and the whole keynote felt like more talking and less action - especially compared to the announcements made at Google’s I/O.
Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it
Great minds think alike
As with F8, Google’s developer conference I/O offered a lot to talk about, from new hardware like Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL, to the impressive progress made on Google Assistant and new details about Android Q, to be released later this year. And while the main talking point for Google was how to enhance the user’s productivity and to support him in every way possible (think also accessibility), privacy was omnipresent throughout every keynote.
Like Apple, Google is moving many machine-learning operations on-device. To run Google Assistant locally, even in airplane mode, it had to shrink 100 GB of voice models down to only 0,5 GB. A very impressive feat, that reduces the amount of private data stored in the cloud and that enables way faster processing by eliminating delay.
A private web
Google also announced Incognito Mode for Maps and other apps as well as new ways for browsing the web more private in Chrome, with better cookie controls that limit advertisers from tracking your activities across websites and a new anti-fingerprint feature. Additionally, users will soon be able to automatically delete stored data in set intervals, making it harder for advertisers to construct targeting profiles.
Google I/O 2019 event in 13 minutes
Google I/O 2019 event in 13 minutes
State of the German market
With the biggest Silicon Valley companies working so hard on more privacy, you would think it should be a major topic at this year’s Online Marketing Rockstar festival, right? Well, it wasn’t.
Only the talk by Philipp Justus, Vice President Central Europe at Google, mentioned privacy in its keynote title and only a few speakers addressed it during their talks. Instead, you could listen to blatant sales pitches from WeChat and other Chinese platforms, a country where privacy is not even an afterthought but ignored on purpose.
It’s striking to me, because one year after the GDPR has been put into effect with much turmoil, it would have been the chance for companies in the Ad tech industry to position themselves as an industry leader when it comes to privacy and data protection.
The GDPR set not only a new European but a global standard for data security and privacy and since it was passed, at least ten other countries including Argentina, Australia and Brazil have moved to implement similar rules. With the California Consumer Privacy Act becoming effective in 2020, it’s clear that the move towards more online privacy has just begun and is here to stay.
Therefore, it’s not only a missed opportunity but more importantly, it’s naive.
Change is coming
For many years the online marketing industry could harvest and sell user data by using cookies and fingerprinting methods, display annoying banner ads that forced users to click them with Evil UX, and making the web an overall bad experience.
Now, they need to re-think their business model and probably change it sooner than they had anticipated. Being first to do so might not only be good for marketing reasons, but necessary for survival.
“Ads kept the internet free for so long but with invasive ad-tracking at its peak and concerns about online privacy — or lack of — privacy is finally getting its day in the sun.”
I was really surprised by the lack of privacy-related talks at OMR. After all, Germany is known for its sensitivity in regards to personal data (remember the movement against Google for showing private houses in Google StreetView?). 
Still, the discussion just has begun and the approaches by Google & Co should not be considered perfect. There is still much room to improve.
And who knows, maybe next year’s OMR will finally catch up to the big players.
Kevin Roose
The Valley-wide scramble to redefine privacy as "we take your data and don't give it to anyone else" instead of "we don't take your data in the first place" is fascinating to watch.
3:53 AM - 8 May 2019
To sum it up
Surfing the web has been a terrible experience for a while now. Just take a look at the screenshot below. It shows a news site - but there are no news to be found in the initial viewport. Instead a massive display ad and a huge cookie consent banner. Great.
How the GDPR and Online Marketing are destroying the user experience.
How the GDPR and Online Marketing are destroying the user experience.
Podcast Recommendation
Do you want to learn more about how secure your data is handled by companies around the world? Then listen to Darknet Diaries, a great podcast where host Jack Rhysider tells mind-blowing stories about “hackers”. And will you quickly realize that most companies suck at keeping your data safe. 
Darknet Diaries Podcast
Did you enjoy this issue?
Martin Wiesemborski

I'm a freelance UX strategist. Think of this newsletter as everything that is on my mind (hence the name): New and emerging tech and design trends, tools and ideas that I stumble upon and think are worth talking about.

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