Tech companies forcing users into an ‘ultimatum’ on privacy

A padlock against a black computer screen.
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Most people have essentially given up on protecting their personal data online, which is exactly what Big Tech wants. They have worked hard to make internet privacy seem endlessly complex. And even companies that claim to respect privacy, such as Apple or Google, in reality offer an ultimatum: "Share your data with only us or lose access to much of the internet".

About the author

Andy Yen, founder and CEO, Proton.

This concept was embodied by WhatsApp earlier this year when it came to light that WhatsApp would delete itself unless users consented to more tracking. When left in the hands of Big Tech, privacy is often the cost of using the internet.

The privacy wave

The data shows that people have had enough of this disregard for their privacy. A recent survey run by Proton (the team behind ProtonMail and ProtonVPN) found that 87% of Brits are concerned about their digital privacy. What is worrisome is 90% of respondents expressed that they did not want their emails scanned, 87% did not want their contacts scanned, and 79% did not want their location recorded, and yet 82% of people are using email providers that can do all of the above. The recent public outrages surrounding Apple and Facebook’s privacy practices further corroborate the sentiment that people want their privacy respected.

This has led to a growing movement of people switching to alternative, privacy-focused services. It also explains why a number of big tech companies have made big claims about the action they are taking to protect the privacy of their customers. For instance, Google’s recent decisions to block third-party cookies and apply two-factor authentication by default, seem like they are taking real action. However, Google has since announced that it will delay the implementation of these reforms while simultaneously continuing to collect personal data through its services.

Gaslighting through ‘options’

Big Tech makes protecting your privacy complex by offering an endless range of privacy options and menus. This might seem counterintuitive, but these privacy controls are often buried under multiple layers of menus and privacy options often must be turned off individually, increasing the likelihood that someone forgets or misses one. This is not true privacy. If privacy-as-a-service was truly the goal, these privacy settings would be turned on by default. As it stands, Big Tech forces people to go through endless menus and controls on their own, hoping they will miss an option, or, even better, not bother with them at all.

Another key example of this privacy gaslighting is the process of collecting data under ‘legitimate interest’. When you enter a website, you have to choose which cookies you will allow before you can access that site’s content. Not only is the ‘Accept all’ option pushed upon us in most cases but, more often than not, the option to decline cookies is a privacy decoy. If you look for the small ‘legitimate interest’ option within these cookies settings windows, you will usually notice a range of other tracking options to be turned off individually. Again, privacy is made unnecessarily complicated because the service provider wants you to acquiesce to online tracking.

Even when it looks like Big Tech companies are making the correct decision, there are caveats. For instance, Google’s recent decisions to block third-party cookies and apply two-factor authentication by default make it seem like the company is taking real action. However, this cookie ban won’t affect Google’s ability to collect data from you or use that data to target you with ads. It has also announced that it will delay the implementation of these reforms until 2023.

If you want privacy to be made simple, you need to seek out alternative, privacy-focused services. However, The Proton survey data shows younger generations to be far more likely to default to services such as Gmail. And 18-24-year-olds (16%) were shown to be almost three times as likely to be unconcerned about data privacy when compared to the 55+ age range (6%). This, concerningly, suggests that young people have accepted the regular invasion of their privacy as a norm or as a condition of being active online.

Take control of the ultimatum

Data privacy is complicated because several of the largest internet companies in the world decided they want to make it complicated. To them, your data, whether it includes your daily schedule, photos with your mother, or emails from friends, is not personal information to be protected but a commodity to be collected and monetized.

Google’s main business is online advertising. When Apple introduced the option to ‘ask app not to track’ for their App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature on iPhones in April of this year, it had a significant financial impact on a number of companies that rely on your data for advertising, including Facebook, Snap and Peloton. This might explain why Apple’s anti-tracking protections are not been as strong as they have claimed.

However, it is still possible to take control of your privacy, and the privacy movement is gaining momentum. When privacy is made simple — as prescribed by legislation like the Digital Markets Act — it becomes an actual choice. When people are presented with a simple choice, they are able to make decisions that align with their stated interests. 

Our survey found that people are turning off digital marketing cookies (33% of those surveyed), turning on two-factor authentication for social media and email (31%), enabling adblockers (22%) and using private browsing (22%) in growing numbers. Investing in privacy-focused tools for email, browser and search engine are also simple steps that can be taken to take control of the privacy ultimatum.

The fight for an internet where privacy is the default is here. Join us and together we can make privacy an easy choice.

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Andy Yen, founder and CEO, ProtonMail.