A Digital Briefing Book on Privacy and Podcasting

Stories to read and listen to, whether or not you’re attending PRX’s podcast privacy symposium

Blake Eskin
Feb 24, 2020 · 4 min read

The past few years have shown a growing public awareness of, and outrage over, how companies use things like cookies, cell phones, and WiFi connections to encroach on individual privacy. These companies — Facebook, Google, and Amazon come to mind first, but there are untold others that aren’t household names — collect data about individual behavior and cross-reference it with other data that they trade or buy access to.

They can then use this data to understand their customers and serve us information that is more relevant to our lives… or to sell us more stuff and capture our attention when we are most vulnerable. The desire to connect and stay informed leaves us exposed to free or low-cost offers that dupe us into giving away more value than we get. And often, we’re giving away more than we understand we are.

Online media is at an inflection point. The mantra that information wants to be free, the disappearance of traditional revenue streams, and the erosion of geographical moats, among other things, have led to a flood of quick, commodified stories competing for attention in search engines and on social media. The result is an existential crisis for publishers large and small.

Podcasting has avoided much of that until now. Here are some possible reasons why:

  • Podcasts get delivered over RSS, a one-way protocol that can’t reveal listener behavior beyond whether or not someone downloaded an mp3 file.

However, with improved technology (remember that 30-pin cable you needed to download “This American Life” to your iPod in 2005?), newfound competition, and surging investor interest, all of these conditions may change — and quickly. Some investors describe podcasting as an undeveloped market. Our ears are a largely open space that can be colonized with personalized ads and interruptive marketing opportunities. And there seem to be companies — Spotify being the most obvious, but hardly the only one — hoping to become the indispensable intermediary between producers and audiences, much as YouTube did for online video and Facebook has for many news publishers.

So podcasting is reaching a crossroads, and on February 25, PRX is convening a symposium on privacy and podcasting, hosted by Journalism + Design at The New School and sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

What would a future for podcasting look like that is accessible to many producers, allows large and small organizations to build sustainable businesses, and is respectful of individual privacy?

Often a symposium will assemble a briefing book so that participants can immerse themselves in the subject in advance. Instead and in the spirit of openness, this post links to recent articles that came up in research for the symposium and that inspired the conversations planned for February 25.

There are also two relevant podcast episodes. On the Basecamp podcast “Rework,” host Wailin Wong talks with David Heinemeier Hansson about his decision to switch hosting companies over privacy concerns, and to representatives of each company.

Wong will be at the symposium, moderating a panel on privacy in podcasting.

And on “The Weeds,” Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias talks with blogging pioneer Anil Dash about how the web also had an open ecosystem before Facebook and Google, and where podcasting is today.

This is only the beginning of an important conversation about privacy and podcasting. For those who will not be at the symposium, you can follow the conversation at the hashtag #podcastprivacy on Twitter.

Editor’s note: Blake Eskin is an assistant professor in Journalism + Design at the New School and a consultant helping PRX to organize the symposium on podcasting and privacy.

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