WTF is Privacy-washing (and should we care)?

March 15, 2023

We apologize in advance for forcing yet another buzzword on you. We hate buzzwords as a rule, but we also do not make the rules. (Yet.)

The word is “privacy-washing,” and it joins a long list of friends – whitewashing, pinkwashing, greenwashing – that typically describe corporations covering up bad behavior with deceptive marketing.

Oil companies greenwash when they make claims about investing in renewable energy, while recording fossil-fuel profit PBs. Every year during Pride, corporations pink- or rainbow-wash when they plaster stores in technicolor, but continue to donate to anti-trans lawmakers.

All this washing is intended to do three things: improve brand image, build consumer trust and loosen purse strings – in that order. And while all companies can clean their dirty laundry this way, some of them deserve special scrutiny because of their outsized economic profiles.

In the case of privacy issues, the ones to watch are, of course, Big Tech. The GAFA guys are the leading proponents of privacy-washing because they have the most to gain from it.

Apple is one of the most experienced players in this game, having begun its privacy crusade almost a decade ago. In recent years, that crusade has turned into full-blown global advertising campaigns proclaiming Apple’s privacy-first approach to products.

Combined with the launch of its “Ask App Not to Track” feature, which ostensibly protects Apple users from dastardly third parties following their every move, Apple has been able to position itself as a valiant defender of our precious personal data.

When one titan splashes, the others get wet. Google has been forced to invest in its new “data protector” image even more than Apple. Given that 80% of Alphabet’s revenue comes from selling sophisticated, data-rich ad space, it’s imperative they keep users using. Without the data from Gmail, Chrome, Search, YouTube and all their other products, advertisers would take their money to more reliable vendors. (That’s also why Facebook had such a conniption over Apple turning off tracking on iPhones.)

While Google and Apple have different business models – one relies on advertising, the other on hard- and software sales – their bottom lines both depend on unfettered control of consumer data. Both also have the advantage of owning hard and soft channels to these flows through operating systems that third parties use (e.g. iOS and Android) and high-traffic product platforms (e.g. iPhone, Chrome).

For Google and Apple the Consumer Champions, privacy is a consumer or product benefit, not an ethical duty. It’s in the strategic interest of both to position privacy features as built-in advantages to their users’ experience.

But it is not in their financial interest to evaluate what data they collect from consumers and why, how they use and store it, or whether users get to participate materially in the data value chain.

That’s because we’re still at a stage in our digital history where users are primarily a means to Big Tech’s ends, whether that means creating new products or raking in trillions in revenue.

Privacy-washing isn’t just about brands earning brownie points with consumers or capitalizing on a new marketing trend. It’s about obscuring the fact that users are the economic producers of their value.

Consumers everywhere don’t just have a right to privacy. We have a right to determine how our valuable data is used. And in a fair market, we deserve to be rewarded for granting access to our economic value, just as Google grants us access to the value of its Search tool.

But until we all stand up and demand to be included in a fair, transparent value exchange, the privacy-washers will continue to launder their brands with marketing stunts and superficially persuasive features.

To put it in other, shorter, somewhat irrelevant terms: if you want clean clothes, you use detergent and a top-of-the-line spin cycle.

You don’t just dust off the dirt and expect no one to smell you coming.