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The People vs Big Tech: Vivaldi CEO on data privacy

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In the age of surveillance capitalism where Big Tech gets our data without our knowledge and permission so they can sell it, how can we ordinary citizens fight back?

“Stop using their tech. Find alternatives. Big Tech tries to convince you that this data collection is necessary to run their services. That is not true. They also try to convince you that everyone does it, and that is not true either. Even though services require data to run better, that does not mean that this data needs to be used to build user profiles and sell access to those users. Those things are not in any way tied together,” Vivaldi Technologies Co-Founder and CEO Jon von Tetzchner, who is ex-CEO and co-founder of Opera Software, told Digital Life Asia.

Protecting our privacy

Vivaldi Technologies Founder and CEO Jon von Tetzchner says Big Tech should not force people to choose between privacy and convenience. Image credit: Vivaldi Technologies
Vivaldi Technologies Founder and CEO Jon von Tetzchner says Big Tech should not force people to choose between privacy and convenience. Image credit: Vivaldi Technologies

“Also, most companies do not collect your data. Does your mailman read your post? Does your telco listen to your calls and put that information into profiles? Does a carpenter working in your house write down all furniture you have in your home? Of course not. We would never accept that, and most companies would not even dream of doing stuff like this. Big Tech has convinced themselves that, because this stuff is there, they can have it. They then point at each other to show that they are not alone, but generally, this is something very few companies do because it is wrong,” he said.

Oslo-based Vivaldi, which develops what Wired has described as the world’s best browser, is one of 14 companies leading the charge against “surveillance advertising”.

“Browser developer Vivaldi, search engine DuckDuckGo and 12 other companies are urging lawmakers to prohibit so-called ‘surveillance advertising,’ which involves serving ads to users based on their activity across websites and apps.

“’Although we recognize that advertising is an important source of revenue for content creators and publishers online, this does not justify the massive commercial surveillance systems set up in attempts to ‘show the right ad to the right people’ the organizations say in a letter sent to U.S. lawmakers as well as officials in Europe.”

As I’ve previously noted in this column, the outdated online advertising model was first introduced by the porn industry, and is one of the reasons the internet is broken and needs to be fixed.

Regulating Big Tech

While Big Tech has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, online and offline, the tide seems to be turning as governments are recognizing the need for regulation.

“Fortunately for us all, government bodies and organizations are starting to take action to drive positive change on surveillance-based advertising, which the Norwegian Consumer Council defines as ‘targeted advertising that is based on tracking and profiling consumers,’ as well as related privacy issues.

In April, for example, EU’s privacy watchdogs called for a ban on facial recognition technology in public places – a welcome sign that the  “privacy is dead” tide is beginning to turn,” Von Tetzchner said.

The battle against surveillance capitalism and surveillance advertising, however, will not just be waged by the government and private sector. We as consumers also need to join the fight to protect our privacy. One way to do this is to choose alternative products and services that put privacy first.

“It is hard to avoid Big Tech entirely, but you can at least take steps to get away from them. Start by choosing another browser and search engine. Then, try to replace any Big Tech service that requires a login,” Von Tetzchner said.

Fighting for a better internet

Von Tetzchner co-founded Vivaldi after leaving Opera precisely to continue the fight for a better internet. Vivaldi takes pride in being an employee-owned company that believes “a browser should adapt to you, not the other way around”.

“Tatsuki Tomita and I started Vivaldi on a mission to provide a browser that works for anyone while putting their privacy first. Vivaldi is a small company owned by employees. We have no external investors, and we are keeping it that way to ensure that Vivaldi stays  on the straight and narrow to ensure we cater to the needs of our users.

“We are (so far) 16 nationalities working across seven countries with offices in Norway, Iceland, and the USA. Our headquarters are in the heart of Oslo, next to a beautiful waterfall. That’s right, a natural waterfall, and you can even catch some Norwegian salmon in the river if that is your thing,” he said.

With the recent release of Vivaldi 4.1, the company is offering even more versatility to users with two new features: Accordion Tabs and Command Chains.

“Many browsers claim to respect the privacy of their users, but the reality is that most of them collect large amounts of data on their users. Some of them create extensive behavioral profiles for advertising. Some of them monitor user behavior within the app itself, what buttons get clicked, how often the user uses tabs, etc. At Vivaldi,  we believe that privacy means actual privacy. We do not track our users. We do not profile their behaviors,” he said.

As individuals, we may be small compared to Big Tech, but we are many and we are fighting for our own rights. Remember what happened to the grasshoppers when the ants realized that the power was with them all along.