Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley thinks a reckoning is coming over data privacy

A decade after the Foursquare location services company first launched at the SXSW festival in Austin, co-founder Dennis Crowley returned to this year's conference with a message for the rest of Silicon Valley: beware of Washington, because the tide is changing

Crowley yesterday announced a specific demonstration by Austin of an experimental function of anonymous location tracking for Foursquare called hypertrending. Today, in an early morning SXSW talk, Crowley addressed difficult issues related to ethics, privacy, data collection and regulation, thanks in large part to the constant insistence of CNN's Laurie Segall. Crowley says companies like Google and Facebook, along with the thousands of smaller and unpleasant intermediaries and data collectors, will take into account possible regulatory changes and a sudden change in the public's attitude towards ad targeting and privacy. data.

"We think a lot about what future legislation will look like, specifically for location technologies," says Crowley. "There is a spectrum for these things, there are applications that collect a ton of location even on individuals and they will sell it to anyone, and they are probably companies that you have never heard of and do not want you to know their name."

But even for big giants like Facebook and Google, Crowley says there will be tough discussions about whether the ad-based and data-hungry business models that They support the most popular technology products on the planet are sustainable. "Without a doubt, I could argue that companies have gone too far in collecting everything and returning only a little bit of value," Crowley said. "Who is getting more value from Facebook? Do I use it for free or do I pay $ 5 a month or $ 10 a month?" I think that as many of these things start to be more understood by consumers in general, there will be a movement towards those [paid] experiences in the future ".

It's only been a day since Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced that she plans to try to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook, which came a day after the startling announcement by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that his The company will switch to a communications platform focused on privacy that prioritizes encryption and ephemerality. Messenger service. But those two events have had a massive impact on this year's SXSW theme. And that issue is already taking shape as a tough debate about how technology companies will react and change now that Washington and the public are beginning to reject the dominant business models of Silicon Valley.

Crowley often avoided criticizing Google or Facebook directly; it sold its first start, Dodgeball, to Google (an experience that, however, it characterizes as "not very fun") and says it has "great respect" for what both companies have built. But sometimes I was willing to express some direct challenges to the ethical positions of those companies. "Google has a map of the world and Facebook has a map of the world and Apple has a map of the world," says Crowley, speaking about the role of Foursquare these days as a provider of business location services for other companies. "And there are many companies that do not want to work with Google, Facebook or Apple because those companies are trying to get them out of business, someone wants a data provider, but not one of the big three."

Crowley, as co-founder of Foursquare and one of its executive directors for seven years before handing over the job to current CEO Jeff Glueck, is one of the few technology executives who can talk about data collection without fear of being called hypocrites. As Glueck said The Verge in a recent interview, Foursquare refuses to sell customer data, despite the multimillion-dollar offers from large companies that want to access users' real-world habits.

In fact, one could argue that Foursquare, which still employs about 300 people, did not expand within the reach of other social networks in part because of its focus on data privacy. Crowley has always made Foursquare's location features transparent and inclusive, and the location platform it now provides to other companies uses only anonymized aggregate data.

Naturally, that approach has not always translated into a success for Foursquare, especially because competing companies such as Facebook and Google integrated location functions and made individualized ads the backbone of the modern web. Over the years, Foursquare has changed its model of consumer applications to business products so that companies can use a large aggregate location. As a result, the company split the original Foursquare in Swarm and City Guides about five years ago, and consumers largely abandoned both, as the concept of check-in lost its appeal.

That puts Crowley in the unique position of being able to criticize other technology executives to create an industry. Culture that devalues ​​the privacy of the user and prioritizes the collection of data at all costs. "There are always requests like, 'Hey Foursquare, can you give me all your data and we can ingest them and find out what to do with them?' Says Crowley. "No, it's not about that, if there is a time when we do something horrible, disrespectful or inaccurate … users will call it and employees will call it in. We can see the lessons that Twitter, Facebook and others struggle with, and say: "Let's do the opposite of what we're doing".

However, as a location service provider for everyone, from Uber and Snapchat to Twitter and Samsung, Foursquare finds itself uncomfortably an industry that habitually discredits ethical practices around privacy and data collection, as The New York Times pointed out in an investigation last December, the advertising market based on location data lacking in applications mobile and native services in smart phones has shot up to an estimated $ 21 billion, and, as the report makes clear, that market exists as a largely unnoticed sector of the economies of technology and marketing as companies do not reveal what they are doing with the data or how often they are collected.

Crowley is optimistic that, regardless of the form that regulations take, companies like Foursquare will be able to launch a more ethical data collection. "We're going to have the opportunity to go to Washington and say that this is what is right and what is wrong," he says. "Ten years on Foursquare, we have this opportunity to shape the future. They invite us to these rooms to help people discover what the law should go on and that determines what the law should go on. That is a great opportunity. "

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