The state of Internet: ‘Huffing and puffing, blowing bubbles into dirty water’

First up: Richard Purcell, one of the first privacy executives. From him, you’ll learn as much about working on the railroad as you will about the abuse of power through privacy invasions. But before that, I try to explain what I mean by “original sin” in the introduction, and why that matters.

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Bob Sullivan: Okay. So I forgot by the way, to wish you a happy data, privacy day,

[00:07:52] Richard Purcell: This is Data Privacy Day, it is the 28th. And you know, today we in an odd way, Bob, in the United States, people like me and you and others ascross the United States are celebrating the Europeans decision to ensconce privacy as a fundamental human right. Um, There are people who would say, gosh, you know, we shouldn’t be celebrating foreign countries, foreign regions, uh, social awareness. We should be doing it ourselves.

[00:08:24] Bob Sullivan: Richard took what you’d think of today as a very unusual route to an executive job at a big software company.  But then when Richard was a teenager, there really weren’t big software companies.

Richard, when I was preparing to talk to you today, I read a little bit about you. And learned some things I didn’t know. Um, including you work at a railroad maintenance when you were a kid.

[00:08:49] Richard Purcell: I did. I did. I like to ask people about what they did in their 18th years.  So  imagine you graduated high school, you’re perhaps off to university or some other, life, study to launch yourself into adulthood, what’d you do? And, and I’ve asked that question for a lot of people and I’ve had fascinating answers. Privileged people haven’t done much in my opinion, and in my research, which is anecdotal.

But what I did is I went out on, the Union Pacific track lines and I repaired railroad tracks for two summers in a row actually to pay for, for university tuition. So I sweated in the hot sun swinging hammer and pushing railroad steel around and pulling out and putting back in creosote timbers for ties and all of that kind of stuff.

It’s what’s called a Gandy dancer. That’s when you have one foot on the ground and one foot on your shovel and you’re pushing rock underneath a railroad tie in order to secure it and keep it from moving in. That’s the Gandy dance. When you get 20 people out there, Gandy dancing, it looks pretty funny.

[00:10:01] Bob Sullivan:  Richard’s work on the railroad provides an interesting metaphorical starting point for our discussion.

[00:10:08] Richard Purcell: I’ve repaired a few derailments down in the on the Columbia River, where locomotives are on their side in a slough puffin and still running and pushing bubbles into the dirty water. It’s pretty, it’s pretty bizarre when you’re working on a river.

[00:10:23] Bob Sullivan: I feel like you just described the state of the internet.

[00:10:27] Richard Purcell: I know.. Don’t you think? Yeah. Laying on its side puffing. Yeah, no I I’m with you, you know, maybe, maybe that’s true, Bob, maybe it’s not. Because I predicted when Facebook faced its Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was a tremendous scandal and, and was, uh, not only an impeachable offense, but one which they should have been convicted for that their, that their value would eventually drop.

That it would take a while, but their value would eventually drop, frankly. It just hasn’t. The users of these internet services seem to be highly resistant to the social ramifications of the kind of negative effects of those companies. And, you know, is somebody worth $62 billion to exploit the the world’s social fabric? I don’t think so. That’s not a bargain I would want to make. But it’s one we have made.

[00:11:30] Bob Sullivan: Richard’s unusual path to the tech world colors his perceptions about the internet today, and about the role of power in social circles and in leadership

[00:11:39] Richard Purcell: I grew up … strictly the 50s, middle-class easy, no problem life, but you know, but absolutely no prosperity whatsoever. But what I saw was in everyday life is that there are these power relationships that are unfair. Those with power, even in a small town, like I grew up in are loathe to give up that power. And for some reason are inuredo the fact of their privilege;  they feel like their privilege is an entitlement.

I worked in the forest. I’ve done a lot of things. I ran a grocery store. I started a newspaper. I did all these things in communities and the vibrancy and the health of a community is what I find lacking. And leadership begins to be tainted by the objective of actually maintaining a power relationship instead of sharing it, or instead of using it more, to create more community vibrancy and health, I find those practical experiences made a big difference in my life.

[00:13:05] Bob Sullivan: It seems like you connect to privacy to power, maybe more than someone else might.

[00:13:11] Richard Purcell: [00:13:11] Oh, it is not power. Yeah. Yeah. It’s unquestionably about power. If I can know enough about you, I can manipulate you without a question. And, and that is a power relationship and the more I more successful I am in the more clever I am about that.And the more disguised I am about my motivation, uh, the more advantageous it is to me. But yes, the lack of privacy is the lack of power. Without question, because frankly it is the lack of dignity. It’s the lack of, of control over my own life. And in fact, the European Union … we celebrate data privacy day today.. the European Union’s basis of data protection is the freedom to develop a personality. That’s the language that they use when they promoted data protection and privacy some 40 years ago. And so the whole idea that you are free to develop your own personality indicates how much of a power relationship.

[00:14:21] Bob Sullivan: So if data equals power and privacy is about power. And 40 years ago, people were thinking about this, where do we go wrong? Where did the engineers drive the train off the tracks? If you will. Richard, what is the original sin of the internet?

[00:14:38] Richard Purcell: The original sin of the internet to me is a failure on our part to key in on the basic question of just because I can do something, doesn’t mean that I should do it. In other words, if I can engineer something … internet history demonstrates that because I can engineer it, then I should use it in any way that that engineering allows. And that’s just, isn’t how life should work. We’ve had many, many follies in our time over that. I don’t want to get overly dramatic about that, and I don’t want to use too harsh and examples of that, but the question really is the internet was developed as an electronic means of communication without regard to the content of that communication, largely because the engineers enabled scientists and researchers to communicate with one another. And they had benign intents for the most part. And it was never thought that anybody using it would have any other kind of intent.

[00:15:50] Bob Sullivan: Our first history lesson of this podcast. We’ll talk a lot about naive take going forward. And we’ll also talk about the word privacy, which I’m here to tell you is always a pretty big risk as a storyteller.

I think the conversation we’re having, you know, if we had it three or four years ago, it would have felt a really academic and be pretty boring to most people.

[00:16:12] Richard Purcell: It has been, you’re right. It has been very boring. I’ve bored people for a long time with this kind of. Gosh, what if, jeez, you know, shouldn’t it be this way or that way? And then the stark reality comes with Cambridge Analytica and, Oh my gosh, look at this. We can manipulate people.

[00:16:31] Bob Sullivan: But I think what is new to people is, okay, it’s one thing to manipulate them into buying a certain brand of toothpaste. It’s another thing to manipulate them. Into not believing in democracy anymore.

[00:16:42] Richard Purcell: Isn’t that the truth? I mean, now that nefarious, you know, characters really have some sophisticated controls, not just blunt instrument controls, but sophisticated controls, and have clear objectives.

It’s hard to understand isn’t it, Bob? What the clear objective of somebody who wants to create an unconstitutional limit on free and fair elections. What would their clear objective be? And there’s no way that’s a beneficent objective. That’s a very much a malicious objective, um, because it means about the accumulation and centralization of some kind of power and authority and control over large populations.

That’s what’s frightening me the most is there are…there are actors in the background who have a clear objective to create a centralized, powerful control mechanism. Um, and democracy is standing in its way.

[00:17:52] Bob Sullivan: Democracy is standing in the way. Thank goodness for that. Except when this new digital battleground for control was built, we didn’t have great models to rely on. So we borrowed heavily from the one we had and that, well, that might actually be the wrong left turn we made.

[00:18:10] Richard Purcell: In the United States, our commercial world runs largely by a model from telecommunications history, way back in radio and television that said, Hey, you know, it’s free to use. We just have advertising to support it.

So you don’t have to subscribe to it. And that was back when it was an airwaves broadcast methodology. That model, unfortunately, it’s persisting, even though it’s not an airwaves model anymore, that by which we transmit this information and communicate, but still that free access to online content persists with the underlying advertising model. And they have very strong reasons to believe that. Advertising as a model has its own dark side. And we see that and we see that from all kinds of points of view, of course. Um, but Google and Facebook are. They’re not technology companies as much as they are advertising companies, Google, and Facebook, and really all internet companies.

[00:19:14] Bob Sullivan: They’re all advertising companies now, but this is a very different kind of advertising. The best TV could do was create programming that probably attracted 18 to 34 year olds. Things have changed and changed fast

[00:19:32] Richard Purcell: Narrow casting means that I can put out a blog. I can put out a podcast, I can put out a website that has a very narrow audience, but the fact is even a narrow audience in global terms can have a large population and therefore create more advertising contacts. And as a result, Better monetization. Those issues are just a profound part of how the internet works.

[00:20:00] Bob Sullivan: It sounds obvious to say that privacy stands in the way of this business model. Is that true?

[00:20:06] Richard Purcell: [00:20:06] Absolutely. No question about it. Privacy is not friendly to the advertising model of monetization and content narrow casting because frankly. The basis of advertising is for the internet particularly, but has always been the demographics of the audience

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About Bob Sullivan 1508 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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