Big tech has a certain ring to it today. Back when the tag was founded, it was also called GAFAM, which stands for Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Each of these companies is not just highly profitable but also provides certain products and services you use. Members of Big Tech have used targeted ads to reach highly profitable and since the beginning.
However, with more people concerned about their privacy, many see surveillance-based ads or targeted ads as a threat. While big tech has responded by disabling direct tracking and introducing new privacy features, it is certainly not enough.
Jon Von Tetzchner, co-founder and CEO of Vivaldi browser, has been an active advocate of online privacy. He is also a signatory in an open letter to European and U.S. regulators, asking them to ban surveillance-based advertising. Jon has been on the web since 1992 and is one of the people who gave us the Opera web browser.
He is currently heading Vivaldi, which is a privacy-focused browser. With the latest 4.0 update, Vivaldi has added features like various customization levels, a feed reader, and a calendar and email client. In conversation with Fossbytes, Jon talks about surveillance-based ads, the future of big tech, and possible replacements for the current surveillance-based ads.
Excerpts from the Conversation:
Fossbytes: Is Vivaldi taking an ecosystem approach with the 4.0 update?
Jon: We’re trying to bring features that people like to use into the browser. We have built an email client into your browser. You can choose the email service you want to use. It’s a similar situation and similar thinking about the calendar. Again, it is giving you a choice to get away from big tech. You can still use big tech services, but you can use them through your client.
I prefer to keep my calendar offline for security and privacy reasons and keep it from the people trying to gather information. Then we come to the feeds. People want to collect information on what we read and how we read it. The feed reader takes it in a different direction, and it allows you to get the kind of news you want to read and subscribe to. It is based on what you’d subscribe to rather than suggestions.
It is clearly a problem to decide what you should read. The consequences are that you are being fed the same content that “if you like this, you’re gonna get more this.” I don’t think this is what people want. People want balanced news, and the feed reader is a better way of accessing news.
Fossbytes: Vivaldi is a privacy-oriented browser based on Chromium codebase. Why did you choose Chromium over Firefox codebase?
Jon: When we were making the decision, the choice was to use Chromium or Firefox. And the reality, as much as it pains me to say it, is that Firefox is losing market share. So it would’ve been a bigger risk from the perspective of which engine we would be choosing. So we went with the same approach as Microsoft, Google, Opera, and just about anyone else. The alternative would be to go with Firefox.
There’s also a question of whether that would’ve been particularly welcome. I wish Firefox all the best. We need to have an alternate codebase, which is unfortunately what we’ve seen with the codebase reduction. But for us to choose otherwise would’ve been a bigger risk, as a company.
Fossbytes: Would Vivaldi switch to its own codebase?
Jon: We’re one of the few people that made a code from scratch. We did it at Opera. We know something about this. Google didn’t build Chromium from scratch, and they built it on WebKit, which is Apple. Apple didn’t build it from scratch either. Basically, building a browser from scratch hasn’t happened in more than 20 years.
When MS, Google, and Apple have to take a base at least to start with, I think it tells you a situation where a startup can’t compete for that. Also, when we were deciding on the codebase, Mozilla was going through code changes. You don’t want to write your code onto something that might be changing drastically just as you’re about to complete it. So it is difficult not to work with Chromium.
I think people should see how big an open-source project is. In this case, it is controlled by Google and what goes into that code is Google, and we may have opinions on the improvements we’d like to see, but that depends on us being able to convince people at Google that it’s good for them. We’ve had a couple of those, but it’s been very, very difficult for us to get any changes in.
We’re trying our best to keep our code as clean as possible and make comments on the code. We have good relations with several people at Google, and at a general and technical level, it is a pretty good collaboration.
Fossbytes: Companies argue that targeted ads help deliver relevant ads. If that were to stop, you’ll still see the same number of ads, but they may or may not be relevant. How do you see this argument?
Jon: That’s not true. I’ve been on the internet for more or less the beginning. I’ve been on the web since 1992. The point is that the context-sensitive ads were replaced by surveillance-based ads. For context-based ads, if you visit a technical site, you’ll see technical ads, and most likely, if you’re on a technical site, you’re interested in technical ads more than seeing ads for something that you happen to browse through.
‘You go on a site where you want to buy something for your wife and you buy it and you’re done with it. And for the next few weeks, you’ll see ads for the things that you’ve bought for your wife. I don’t think that’s helpful”
I mean, we all know this story. You go on a site where you want to buy something for your wife, and you buy it, and you’re done with it. And for the next few weeks, you’ll see ads for the things that you’ve bought for your wife. I don’t think that’s helpful, and I don’t think that works for advertisements. For me, the question is also what we are willing to give up. For most of us, we do not believe that we’re getting any value from this. We, as users, are not getting any value from the kind of data collection that is happening. Instead, what we’re getting is a lot of pain.
As a personal example, I was in Florida with family, and we’re driving through a shooting ring. As we’re there, talking about it, my son gets ads from the NRA. I don’t know what triggered the ads at exactly that time, but it is interesting.
Fossbytes: What are your opinions on Instagram and Facebook?
“All of this feels like we’re being monitored and the monitor isn’t that smart, then it is a really bad combination.”
Jon: I think it has gone wrong. There’s more focus on the business model, and there’s more focus on how we keep people inside the system, how do we keep getting as much information as possible. I think it has gone too far. There’s a reason why we’re pushing for banning this. I don’t really think there’s a way around this.
We’ve seen with the introduction of GDPR where you get all the dialog boxes asking for your permission, and you don’t have any other choice but to give permission. I also think that from a societal perspective, there’s significant damage with the population information being collected. I think that is a security risk if someone hacks into it.
There’s a lot of research going into this. There’s a risk that people can be manipulated into having opinions that they otherwise wouldn’t have. The easy thing is to have me buy something I don’t need, but it also means that your opinions are being manipulated. That’s very dangerous and unfortunate.
Facebook can make money without doing this, and so can Google. If that means making less, so be it. I think they can make a decent amount of money. Whenever you have a situation like this, where you’re changing the system, they change it in a way that shouldn’t be allowed. They have no reason or right to collect this information about us, and utilizing that information to build profiles on us is going too far.
In my humble opinion, it is an inferior advertising market compared to what we had before this. Because it was working better. I think newspapers were doing better at that time when it comes to their revenues. Suppose it went to the advertising system we had before, the same advertising system we have everywhere else in newspapers and television. These are context-based advertisements. I think that is fine, and they’ll be able to make some money, and I think there will be winners and losers in this.
There are some people; there are companies that have really optimized their revenues for this. I think the biggest group that has made a lot of money is fake news. Fake news is a great business for this because you don’t need to do your research. You don’t need to be a journalist. It would help if you wrote something. It is optimized for that business model and not that of the hardworking journalist. I really think these guys have done a lot of damage. It’s a bad combination if all of this feels like we’re being monitored, and the monitor isn’t that smart.
Fossbytes: What do you have to say about Google FLoC?
Jon: It’s a case of “cookies are being blocked, so we need to find another way of collecting information.” You’re collecting the information may be more locally. I don’t think it makes it better. There are a few different solutions in the market where we see that browsers are collecting information based on your browsing behavior.
This all leads to the same thing. You’re leading to ads based on you as a person, and all these methods being used will make it possible to do it in this environment. The difference is that if it is being collected in the browser, you may have more information. There might be cases where third-party sites are not able to collect that information.
I think this is Google trying to defend its turf with regards to collecting data. It is in their favor, making it harder for other companies to do the same thing as them. I don’t think it is good for any company to be collecting information, but I’m also not comfortable with Google being the only one that can do it.
Fossbytes: Should there be an ecosystem or should there only be independent sites working with each other?
“Treat your customers with respect. Our information is Our Information.”
Jon: I’m not sure if dividing them is the solution. We need regulation from what they’re able to do. Again, banning surveillance is one thing.
If a company is in a position where it is both a provider of a platform and a gateway to that platform, then you follow stricter rules compared to normal companies because they’re in a monopoly situation. There’s an interesting discussion nowhere in the US regarding that kind of thing because you have just a handful of companies that are basically dominating huge parts of the markets.
Do you have Microsoft, Apple, or Google? They dominate everything, and you can discuss how big their market is, but their markets are huge compared to everything else. I think they have strong positions, and they need to be held to certain standards because everyone else is competing on top of them.
So when you have those kinds of companies doing anti-competitive things, that needs to be dealt with. To me, the big issue is still a ban on surveillance-based advertising. I’m not concerned in some ways about how they manage to do it, and I’m not concerned about it. If they were to struggle economically because of it, I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Maybe you’ll get some competitors entering the market, which I think would be a good thing. I believe in competition and competition is a good thing.
These companies buy out their competitors. I think it’s better to have competition for growth, but I don’t think it is necessary to divide them. It’s basically saying you’re a company with certain rules about what you can and what you can’t do, and you have to play fair with competitors and treat your customers with respect. Our information is Our Information.
Fossbytes: If regulators are regulating innovation before it has happened, what will happen to innovation?
“Your mailman doesn’t read your mail. Your telephone company doesn’t listen to your calls. And if you have someone coming and working in your house, maybe a carpenter or painter, they would not collect information about what you have there. It is about common decency.”
Jon: Your mailman doesn’t read your mail. Your telephone company doesn’t listen to your calls. And if you have someone coming and working in your house, maybe a carpenter or painter, they would not collect information about what you have there. It is about common decency.
I think things have moved a little quicker now. I agree with that. In some ways, regulators have a tough job because they’re under pressure from different places. There’s a discussion now on surveillance-based ads. On the one hand, some people obviously see what needs to be done. And people are pushing like, “Hey, we just want access to the same data as Google.”
For instance, Telcos in the US want to collect the same data as Google. They want permission out of equality. They shouldn’t be collecting data, and no one should have the right to collect data. It’s wrong. For me, when you don’t have regulations, it’s like you don’t have a referee in a sports match. You don’t have a referee, and some players are willing to go too far. If you only need a few people who break the system, not having a referee would mean you have a problem.
You’ll have someone kick down the other players and say, “Hey, I didn’t do that on purpose.” Now we have monopolies that have stopped innovation. They stopped innovation and stopped things from happening. They’re in the process of progress and competition. We’d see innovations happening faster if we had more competition. The lack of regulation has reduced information.