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Browsing Privacy – A Matter of Life or Death? Scoble vs Shetty

On the eve of the most polarizing United States Presidential election in my life, I was in Lisbon, watching a debate. It was between tech blogger Robert Scoble, donning goofy-looking virtual reality glasses. And on the opposite end of the stage, a serious and well-spoken Shalil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

They were debating privacy and tech gadgets: whether or not we were giving up too much privacy and security for the ‘advancement’ of technology.

Like the U.S. election, their perspectives couldn’t have been more polar. Scoble’s goofy glasses and talk about beacons in football stadiums that help him get his hot dog more easily were juxtaposed with Shetty discussing Amnesty International’s efforts to protect the freedoms of people who live under governments that are misusing technology everyday to control, imprison and eliminate their own people.

Scoble argued, in a nutshell, that

  1. Personalized technology that recognizes you and serves custom information to you is actually a good thing.
  2. We can and should rely on companies to build parallel technology to block tracking of individuals in places where they ought to have the right to privacy.

Personally, I have always agreed with point 1. I actually like when a re-marketing campaign helps me relocate a cool tool I wanted to check out but didn’t have the time when I first discovered it. And I don’t mind the browser tracking required to do that. That said, I know it’s not for everyone.

Point 2, however, is naive at best, especially in light of Shetty’s argument.

In the battles that Amnesty International is fighting over privacy, it’s not about whether your social network of choice is tracking your off-site activities and showing you ads. Privacy is literally a matter of life or death, in which governments that don’t respect open dialog and political freedom are using technology to identify, find, imprison and eliminate dissenters.

For these people, it’s not a matter of relying on companies to give you privacy blocking features. It’s about governments that don’t care about the ethics and how easily technology is turning into a set of tools of oppression.

So the philosophical debate went to Shetty, in my mind and, according to a show of hands, in the minds of many attendees.

That said, Scoble is not wrong. His view is probably closer to the reality of how things will develop over the coming years. Personalized applications and the data collection needed to support them will grow. The technology to identify individuals walking down the street will “improve” and unfortunately so will the technology that fires remote weapons at those people.

Even as privacy concerns become more frequent topics of conversation, we still live in a world where people building ‘cool’ stuff are too far away from places where the same technology is being misused for evil. They are too far away to truly understand its impact.

Well, at Ghost Browser, we don’t think that we are “too far away”. Knowledge creates proximity and we are a company that will address issues that we are inherently a part of, rather than turning a blind eye to make money. In effect, we will be the change we want to see in the world.

What does this have to do with the Ghost Browser product?

About three months ago we launched our Beta. It was our intention to create a productivity browser that would help people Ghost (v. to glide smoothly and effortlessly) through their tasks.

But a strange thing happened after the launch. People started signing up for it because they wanted to be like a Ghost (as in ‘I’m invisible – you can’t see me or what I’m doing on-line and neither can anyone else’).

It wasn’t our intention to build a privacy product. And it is still our mission to build Ghost Browser as a Productivity browser.

But the truth is, Ghost Browser does offer some great benefits for people seeking private on-line browsing. It’s not a complete lock-down solution to privacy from oppressive governments. But it does allow users some privacy benefits they might prefer to use over a standard browser like Chrome, especially when combined with other tools.

The problem is, if you get a premium subscription to the browser, your use of it is tied to an electronic payment method that could compromise your use of it as a privacy browser to begin with.

So Scoble-Shetty changed something for us. We’re changing to a freemium model now. We will still offer a premium option, but we also want to create a way for basic usage of the browser that will allow for its use as a privacy browser as well. It’ll take us a little longer to get going and what we sacrifice in number of paid users, hopefully we’ll make up for by simply having more people using and talking about it.

It may not do that, and we could run some experiments to find out. But revenue is not the only factor, nor is it the primary factor in our decisions. It certainly is not in this case. Besides, not every company needs to be a unicorn. In a time when there is so much uncertainty about where our world is headed, we’d like to make a difference where we can. Like Amnesty International. You can read more about their work here.


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