The Tyranny of the Default

Marketing firms love to tell us that we control our privacy – you simply need to opt out of tracking! Like Dorothy, we’ve had the power all along. Just click your heels three times and uncheck all those pesky tracking options under Settings… somewhere. Just call customer service and speak to a representative. Just mail in the proper form. It’s really your fault that you’re being tracked because you’ve failed to get off your lazy butt and opt out.

opt out

But have you changed any of your privacy settings on Facebook? How about Google? Home Depot? Comcast? Bank of America? Have you ever in your life read the entire terms of service on a social media account or software application, including the privacy policy? Have you ever tried to opt out of data collection or third party sharing?

The Cop Out that is Opt Out

Statistically speaking, most people never bother looking at these settings, let alone change them. And the companies that produce these products and services know this very well. They’re counting on it, in fact. It’s the path of least resistance. It’s the Tyranny of the Default. [credit to Steve Gibson for coining the term]

Several privacy-focused organizations and individuals have created guides to help you protect your privacy, including yours truly. But when I ran across a new guide, I just had to laugh and shake my head. It’s unironically called simpleoptout.com. The site has gone to great lengths to figure out how to opt out of tracking on over 50 websites and services, distilling it down to a single link to click, phone number to call, or form to fill out. Chances are very good that you have interacted with most of these 50+ companies. But this site makes it self-evident that opting out is anything but simple. If Sisyphus were alive today, opting out would be his task.

Dark Patterns

Even if you’re aware that these settings exist and you manage to find them, the language used to describe the settings is deliberately misleading. There’s no single checkbox labeled “stop tracking me!”. (Okay, there used to be, but it was ignored.) Instead you see things like “personalize my experience” and “make ads more interesting”. Or maybe it’s harmless-sounding options like “send automated diagnostics and information” or “allow third party cookies” or “remember my history”. And of course they’re all enabled by default.

These misleading phrases and confusing user interfaces are called Dark Patterns. Under the guise of giving you choices (some of which are now mandated by law in Europe), marketers use words and phrases which will either confuse you (not sure what that means, better leave it alone) or trick you into selecting the option that benefits them over you.

We Need a New Default: Opt In

Marketers have gotten out of control. It’s bad enough that we have to watch ads everywhere we go. But now those ads are watching us back. We leave a trail of digital footprints everywhere we go today – not just online, but even in the real world. With the Internet of Things, facial recognition on public cameras, and automated license plate readers, it’s just getting worse. There is no practical way to opt out anymore. We have to have a new default: opt in. While we need regulations that require complete transparency on data collection and sharing, we also need the default policy to be “do not collect or share”. Opt out does not and cannot scale. We have to move to opt in.

Lobbyists will fight this because they know no one will opt in. They’ve been making money hand over fist and will not give it up willingly. Data has surpassed oil as the world’s most precious commodity. And like oil before it, data is dominated by a handful of insanely wealthy and powerful monopolies. This industry will never “self regulate”. And opting out is logistically impossible today. It’s time for our elected representatives to return control of your data to its rightful owner: you.

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