A 1996 Wall Street Journal article that’s been quietly sitting on the web, waiting for its rediscovery and renewed relevance, has found its moment on Twitter this week. Though it discusses the contemporaneous issues and concerns of its time, if you extract the particular problems it identifies with the internet and apply them to our present day, you’ll find something disturbing: nothing’s changed. The core concerns that troubled us about our participation in online communities and services in 1996 are basically identical in 2018.
“Arguments continued over the use of technologies such as ‘cookies’ that collect marketing information as people browse the Web,” says the prophetic WSJ reporter. I’m impressed that in 1996 those arguments were so entrenched and ongoing that they could be referred to as a continuing thing. I also feel deflated that we still haven’t figured out an adequate solution. Also in the “continuing” bucket is the US government’s desire for backdoor access to private data. “The White House continued to fight the spread of strong encryption technologies for the Internet, backing a built-in ‘key’ for law enforcement and other authorized bodies.”
The article is so on point with regard to 2018 that it also identifies the 1996 equivalent of GDPR, saying that “on the international front, on-line users’ concerns led to the passage of Internet-privacy legislation in several countries.” And, of course, as Facebook’s data collection and insecurity scandal has revealed, “many on-line users remain ill-informed about exactly what personal information is available on the Internet.”
So there, an article old enough to legally drink in the United States has pretty accurately described the exact set of issues plaguing our internet use today. It was written before the iPhone and iPad, before Google even existed, before our lives became flooded with screens and cameras and ubiquitous high-speed cellular connections.
The next time a big, multibillion-dollar tech company tries to plead ignorance on these matters or attempts to argue that it’s facing unforeseeable and unique challenges, I hope someone remembers to show them this WSJ account of how things were in 1996.