Spokeo founder Harrison Tang recently sat down with Time magazine columnist Joel Stein to discuss Spokeo, the "people search industry," online privacy and much more. It was a frank and open discussion, and you can read a small portion of the interview in the latest issue of Time. We were definitely excited to be mentioned in a cover story of a major news magazine, and in the company of giants like Facebook and Google to boot (though Stein rightly refers to us as "a tiny company located in Pasadena"). We even proposed our own cover, but no dice. (See left.)
Stein, a sharp and funny writer, spends most of the article exploring the world of ad tracking, where advertising companies monitor online browsing/shopping habits in an attempt to better target the user with individualized goods and services (through online ads, pop-ups etc.). When he finally does come to Spokeo towards the end of the piece, he does make it clear that we only aggregate publicly-accessible data, and relatively harmless (though certainly valuable) data at that. Stein includes a nice quote from Harrison which places Spokeo in the proper historical/technological context:
"Back in the 1990s, if you said, ‘I’m going to put pictures on the Internet for everyone to see,’ it would have been hard to believe. Now everyone does it. The Internet is becoming more and more open. This world will become more connected, and the distance between you and me will be a lot closer. If everybody is a walled garden, there won’t be an Internet."
To this, Stein counters that "it’s still too easy to find our gardens. Your political donations, home value and address have always been public, but you used to have to actually go to all these different places – courthouses, libraries, property-tax assessors’ offices – and request documents." To call what we do – collecting all of this disparate public information in one handy place – "too easy," is accidentally hitting the nail on the head: we are trying to make it easy!
Compare what we do to what Wikipedia does. Imagine yourself sometime in the prehistoric mists of the pre-internet age: the year is 1977. The Bee Gees’ latest hit single "Stayin Alive" is booming on the 8-track. You’re busy adding rhinestones to your bellbottoms, and suddenly you wonder: Who was the Germans’ chief strategist during the Franco-Prussian war? (We’ve all been there!) In those days you would have had to walk down to your local library, consult the card catalog or librarian, search for the desired book in the stacks, take it down, and flip through the pages for the answer. In 2011, however, you type a few words into Google, and faster than you can say Beschleunigungsstreifen, you have the answer: Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (duh!). The information is the same – it’s just a lot less of a hassle to get it. And I think all of us are thankful for that.
In the end, Stein comes to a sane conclusion. "The more I learned about data mining," Stein writes, "the less concerned I was. Sure, I was surprised that all these companies are actually keeping permanent files on me. But I don’t think they will do anything with them that does me any harm."