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Word on the Future

August 2019 | ~ 3 min read

Welcome to the eleventh edition of Word on the Future. Thank you for being here with us.
Keywords: differential privacy; data aggregation; ethics
  • Trust, specifically around data, has become a core business need in 2019.
  • Differential privacy offers one technical solution to balance the interests of businesses to analyze and use behavioral data with ethical requirements.
  • A WordPress core feature for a consistent consent experience has been proposed while Automattic’s acquisition of Tumblr raises privacy concerns.

Strange, and stranger things: ethics in tech

In December 2017, the Netflix Technology Blog published an article on artwork personalization that still surfaces on social media occasionally. Citing popular shows like ‘Stranger Things’ as examples, the authors explain how Netflix’s algorithms learn to decide which flavor of artwork is more likely to get an individual to watch a specific title. As the article puts it, Netflix essentially maintains ‘over a 100 million’ different versions of its product, with personalized recommendations and visuals for each member.
There’s something strange about the underlying premise here: the question of how to ‘convince you that a title is worth watching’ seems to be a major concern to Netflix’s engineers. Even though members pay a flat rate per month, regardless of their consumption, the company’s Annual Report 2017 prominently highlights the ‘more than 140 million hours of TV shows and movies [watched] per day’ by its customers.
In other words, Netflix’s ‘multi-armed bandit’ algorithms were designed to glue us to our screens for as long, or as often as possible: they engineered addiction.
What seems even stranger is the fact that in its more recent report, the company still emphasizes the competitive need to ‘predict and recommend titles that our members will enjoy’, however, the KPI of member time spent watching has completely disappeared. If engineered addiction was a strategy, Netflix apparently abandoned, or de-prioritized that strategy within the course of a single year. Why?
‘Ethics is the tech trend for 2019’, state authors Heather Burns and Morten Rand-Hendriksen (both renowned within the global WordPress community and beyond for their publications on privacy and ethics on the web) – and they immediately proceed to dismantle the very notion that something as fundamental as ethics could be reduced to a summer fad. Enterprises today are {and, in fact, have been for years) expected to recalibrate their digital strategies to protect instead of unilaterally mine human experience.
The least strange thing about ethical, privacy-first data aggregation probably is: it may not be that hard. Netflix arguably backpedaled from a KPI of engineered addiction to employing ML simply as a means to delightful UX and competitiveness.
Bluecore, a decisioning platform that claims to help retailers get to know their shoppers the way Netflix knows its viewers, introduced differential privacy in their recommendation engine, delivering both privacy guarantees and better data insights to enterprise clients.
While personalization still is brought to market with a promise of total certainty, surveillance brands are being scrutinized and held accountable for their legal trespasses. Ethics in tech are indeed more than a trend. They’re becoming a question of trust, brand credibility and, ultimately, survival.
Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Senior Staff Instructor, LinkedIn Learning
on YouTube’s effect on democracies around the world

‘Recommendation engines become radicalization engines
unless they are explicitly designed not to be.’


Read: Automattic, providers of WordPress-based hosting and blogging services, have acquired Tumblr, raising questions from privacy experts.

Discuss: WordPress’ core privacy team has proposed a consent and logging mechanism for user privacy to provide a consistent consent experience.

Forward to a friend

Until next time!

Noel Tock
Partner and CGO at Human Made
August 2019 contributions from: Ana Silva, Camila Villegas, Caspar Hübinger

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