The Internet Or Your Privacy: Which Do You Value More?

    April 8, 2012
    Drew Bowling
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There’s an old cartoon that came out back in an issue of The New Yorker in 1993, back when the Internet was still damp with amniotic fluid and long before it’d taken its first step, that featured a dog sitting in front of a computer and looking over to his four-legged pal and saying, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It was an age of a different kind of online experience, when Internet users could reliably pretend to be other people (or animals, if that was your thing), when everyone was cautioned about not giving out too much or if any personal information because you never knew exactly who you could be communicating with or, even scarier, who might be secretly eavesdropping. More than it being an era with a different set of rules, it was an era of a different Internet altogether.

The cartoon encapsulated a time when you were the only filter through which your personal information traveled; what information you shared was what you chose to share and you could retain varying levels of anonymity depending on your comfort levels.

In 2012, you could confidently say that the opposite is true: on the Internet, absolutely everyone knows you are not a dog; more, they know that you are exactly you. You can’t so much as touch a computer mouse these days without having your five most important interests, the color of your hair, your address, and your past three Amazon purchases all immediately transfered to the servers of companies working behind the online curtain. It’s not that we are over-sharing or giving up too much information about ourselves these days but, rather, we simply cannot help or stop hemorrhaging our personal information into the Internet.

For those of you that can remember, do you find yourself missing those pioneer days of the internet when you could truly be anonymous? Or, have you embraced the current pro-sharing transparency that has become the norm on the Internet? Feel free to tell us know what you think.

Whether you’re bothered by it or not, the issue of online entities, namely online companies that have become synonymous with the technology like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, tracking users activity on the Internet has created something of a fever within the sphere of privacy rights. Regardless of whether you care or not, it’s a fever that promises to spread much further before it finally breaks. The question is, how’s the result going to affect the way you interact with the Internet?

Privacy Comes, Privacy Goes

In March, the Federal Trade Commission released its final report for how online businesses should adjust their practices when following you around on the Internet, picking up the breadcrumbs of your activity and turning them into tasty loaves of revenue they generate by selling your information to advertisers. The report addresses several aspects of online privacy, ranging from the practices of data brokers stocking up on your information to providing tools like a Do Not Track button for consumers’ protection. WPN’s Abby Johnson spoke with Jules Polonetsky, the Director and Co-Chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, to explain each of the major issues addressed in the FTC’s report.

It’s important to distinguish what the Do Not Track function exactly means to you insofar who can collect your information were you to employ it. First, such a function isn’t some panacea to prevent any and all companies from collecting your information.

“The Do Not Track flag is designed to protect users against tracking by third-party companies with whom a user has no relationship,” Rainey Reitman, Activism Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told WebProNews. “It isn’t designed to tackle the problem of first-party data collection.”

First-party data collectors would be considered those sites you visit directly, news sites or sites like Google and Facebook. Providing them with some of your information, what you’re reading and clicking on and so forth, is one of the reasons you’re able to access their content for free (more on that in a minute). In February, the White House released the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that suggested a better rubric to develop a more transparent understanding between consumers and businesses:

“First parties could create greater transparency by disclosing what kinds of personal data they obtain from third parties, who the third parties are, and how they use this data. This level of transparency may also facilitate the development within the private sector of innovative privacy-enhancing technologies and guidance that consumers can use to protect their privacy.”

But the Do Not Track feature can still affect some first-party sites that collect information in a similar way that third-party might.

“The Do Not Track flag can be an effective tool to communicate with companies that are typically first-party companies but which, by embedding code on various websites, are acting like third-party companies — such as Facebook with the like button,” Reitman added.

Still, for now the FTC is leaving it up to the industry to self-regulate the data collection practices by stopping short of requiring new legislation to regulate it for them.

So what’s your reaction to the government’s recommendation for the Do Not Track feature? Think it goes far enough? Think it’s overreaching and could have adverse affects on advertising? Speak up, tell us what you think.

The thing is, almost none of you are really keen on being tracked around on the Internet. When Google Analytic’s Justin Cutroni asked Google users, “Do you think a business should be able to anonymously track your actions on their website?” the response was as subtle as an anvil falling through a thin sheet of glass: 84.7% of respondents replied, “No.” And notice that the question didn’t parse any different between first-party and third-party collectors or any other kind of stipulations – just a plain, general “businesses.” And still, people overwhelming responded that they don’t think businesses should be able to track people.

Incidentally, two other polls were released that reiterated consumers’ desire to not be tracked. A poll from Consumer Reports revealed that 71% of Internet users are “very concerned” with the way companies are collecting and user consumer information. Another poll from LA Times/USC Dornsife revealed that 82% California voters are “very/somewhat” concerned about companies tracking their Internet activity. Furthermore, none of the respondents trust any of the major tech companies with their information.

You Must Choose, But… Choose Wisely

One thing to remember in all of this is the Why for companies’ data-tracking practices.

One way or another, the Internet is going to change. We can’t expect to limit businesses’ fodder – our information – for advertisements, which is how they generate revenue, and yet still maintain the luxury of enjoying top-shelf services for free. In fact, their use of our information is how those services are free in the first place, not to mention as high quality as they are. In this hyper-capitalist society, that’s just not going to be permitted or functional. As alternatives to Gmail or Facebook or Twitter go as of right now, good luck finding comparable services. You might be able to do without them altogether, sure, but replacing them is a different problem.

If the current flow of information sucking through companies’ servers is throttled, something is going to change and most likely what you’re going to see is the gradual implementation of fees for services. Companies don’t like to amass a certain level of wealth only to have those riches diminish because of new regulations. They’ll find a way to maintain their current wealth. Don’t believe me, just look at what is happening with banks. Free checking accounts used to be the norm, but ever since regulation was passed to limit overdraft fees on checking accounts, those truly free accounts are hard to come by. You either pay a small monthly fee to maintain a checking account or have to maintain a higher balance regularly in order to have a “free” account.

The point is, banks were told not to fleece their customers with overdraft fees, thus cutting off a source of revenue. The banks didn’t want to let go of that revenue that easily, so to offset the difference they passed on the cost to their customers in the forms of accounts that require monthly fees.

The maxim here: nothing ever comes for free. Sponging away our personal information in order to turn that into Googlebucks and Facebookbucks is how these companies got wealthy in the first place. Cut that source of revenue off and these companies will simply change their practice to generate money from us in another way. Like I said, once a business acquires a certain level of wealth, regardless of how (un)scrupulous its methods were, they’re not going to accept a lesser net worth. The cannibals on Wall Street would see that as a failure, and once investors start bailing then the company goes under.

So before we can realistically start rattling our sabers and demanding our cake while we eat it, too, you’re going to have to make a choice. A compromise, if you will: Allow online companies to use your information – at least in some respect – in order to continue using free, high-quality services, or you’re going to have to pay something to continue using those sites. I realize one of the driving forces behind the government’s recommendations for businesses is to improve transparency between consumers and companies, but that information is as good as currency on the Internet. It’s not really something that they’re likely to let go of easily.

What are you going to do, Internet users: are you okay with giving up some of your information in order to continue unfettered use of sites like Google and Facebook; or, if it ever came to it, would you possibly be willing to pay to use those once-free services in order to maintain the quality and access? Anybody got any good suggestions for a compromise between the two choices? Tell us what you think. It’s important that you think about this and really weigh your priorities because, one way or another, a change is coming to how we use the Internet.

  • http://www.isabelsmith.com/ Isabel Smith

    I value the internet because our privacy was gone long before — about the time we got Social Security numbers I would say.

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  • http://Wredlich.com Warren Redlich

    Imagine if FB or Google offered a deal – pay $1/month to avoid tracking. If all fb users paid that’s be about $10B/year in revenue. And they could still sell ads with less targeting.

  • Alan

    It is all about control of us plebs will we the plebs lets this happen without a true revolt.
    We will have to wait and see but those with just a little tech knowledge will find away around whatever they put in the way. Yet those in power has the secret courts don’t they where we never get to see why or what is really going on.

    Privacy is our last domain pardon the pun

  • door2death

    ive kept is anonymous as i could, since day one back in 2000 when i got on the internet. it has gotten much harder over the years to remain as anonymous throughout my internet travels. i feel as if this privacy thing is going to come down on fat G and similar companies that take the wealth of information we unknowingly (for the most part) provide them for granted. i dont think a simple terms and conditions text with 100 paragraphs really cuts it anymore. if you are going to demand access to the volume of information you do then you should be obligatd to do whatever it takes and costs to make sure every last internet user (within reason of course) understands what is going on with their information, not just the more tech saavy that might read blogs like this.

    If anyone should be making money off of their personal information and activies it should be the user themselves. after all, you ARE the owner of your own persona informatin right?

  • http://www.captaincyberzone.com Cap’n Cyberzone

    I value my privacy.
    If I wanted to be a public whore I would have gone into show biz, hired a PR firm, got on Facebook and Twitter, got a lot of tatoos that screamed “look at me, look at me!” and landed in jail a few times.
    I lived very well without the internet and can do so again.
    Happy Easter! Happy Passover! Happy Eggnostic to the rest!

  • http://www.goldcurrent.net Gold Current

    Nice use of Hagelian dialectic but you fail.
    Choosing between one or the other is an illusion.
    Corporations do not own us and people are more powerful than they think.

  • Joshua

    It depends on the information, but it’s not currently asking for medical records or credit reports, etc, etc. If I give some personal information to a company to use their service, it is okay, I believe- as long as not every person has access to my personal information. Not everybody (including myself) can afford to pay for services like social networking. Facebook has promised to always be free as well. Also, specifically, facebook does not SPAM me. Some applications might do it if I sign up for them though. Some companies overstep the privilege of having acquired personal information. They might ask for information in order to join their site, but then they use it to send advertisements in e-mail and regular mail; and they do it too frequently. I think that privacy is not an illusion. In some areas, there still is the ability to have privacy; and not every company oversteps their boundaries. People should be honest about who they are on the internet, but at the same time, we should not have to make every bit of information public.. Both companies and individuals should not use privacy-related matters for dishonest purposes.

  • http://spyimplants.webs.com don muntean

    Privacy is a relative concept on the internet – if people want to be private then they have to think about that they DO online. Of course the diminished sense of privacy the internet affords is ‘nothing’ compared to the digital violation of my privacy – for 118 months and 3 days now.

    Here is a link to my protest website: http://spyimplants.webs.com

    People are worried about privacy in a digital world yet they are singularity focused on ‘external’ compromises.

    As my experience shows – the more acute concern in the invasion of privacy – that is implant based.

    Don’t scoff and don’t laugh – this happened and it’s yet to be resolved. It’s very worrisome to see how we’re so trusting [naive?] of agencies and other ‘professionals’ who would compromise our privacy in ways that go beyond a tracking-cookie!

  • Yuri

    Never register your your real name but use variation, and minus your age by 11 years or some random number.

    I like to see those marketing guy try to clean their data.

  • star

    We all need our privacy back and that is the most important is privacy. Thank you

  • http://www.woodsieswaste.co.uk/ Lisa

    privacy is a great concern and it should be handled in a true manner. Privacy regulations must be included for those who are big in business.

  • http://www.royalbisnisonline.com/?id=asdi samudi

    i value my privacy.

  • http://www.saintandrewspres.org Sean Boru

    Google can and has been replaced on my firefox with ixquick.com so they can stick their tracking. Cleaning out cookies except for those you use mose regular is easy with FF not so much with Internet Exploder. Secure sockets layer easily covers your tracks and pen names are easy to create if you use one regular then write it down and use consistantly and have many of them. As to email there are several including some offshore who do not answer to the American government which provide email addresses anoynously.

  • chase

    Interesting article… at times I agree and at times I disagree with you while reading it.

    “They make money…” “Lots of it…” “at the expense of others privacy” pretty well sums it all up nicely.

    BTW – Google and Facebook are not the only entities online. Web Pro News you guys do know that don’t you? Serriously – that is all you talk about.. Facebook or Google or Facebook or… Google

    They may be your Internet Gods and you may feel you have to bow to their whims – but I don’t. The impact they make to the net by comparison as a whole – isn’t quite as large as you think. It’s actually quite minor.

    But as far as your topic is conserned – choosing Privacy or the Net… I choose both.

    The fleas can suck someone elses blood. Besides we all know that the info collected that is spoken of – is comprised mostly of garbage info. Those that buy it or do business dictated as a result of it. are… fools.

  • http://www.webhostingreviewinnovations.com Cheryl

    We are already so seriously imbedded in the business social networks; I don’t think it’s possible to disenfranchise ourselves from them at this point. We’re a day late and billions short. Not only is our personal information out there, but so is our location. Facebook has rolled out Timeline, a new layout that includes a map tab of all the locations a user has tagged. By looking at someone’s map tab on Facebook, you can see everywhere they’ve tagged a location. You can see the stores and restaurants they frequent, the gym they go to, even the street they live on if they’re tagging photos of their home. Your phone is like a beacon, communicating with towers. If you don’t turn off that feature on your phone people (and businesses) are going to be able to recreate your entire day. I certainly value my privacy more and am willing to pay for it (within my means) but again, I think we’re trying to shut a door against a hurricane. That ill wind is simply too strong now.

    • http://www.webpronews.com/author/drew-bowling Drew Bowling

      I don’t think we can, either; we bit down on the yummy goodness of free Internets and now we’ve got the lockjaw.

  • nytoons

    More important than my privacy, I’m very concerned about the privacy of family members who can’t protect themselves. As a parent of two learning disabled children, a significant portion of my research is conducted online. As careful as I am to avioid tracking, I’m concerned this info will somehow hurt my kids later in life when they look for a job, apply for insurance, etc.

  • Hugh wan miname

    Blag, blag, blag – YAWN. Hypocrit writing about giving details and you want my name and email. I’ll stay anonymous this time. BOOM!

  • http://idealtotem.com Dennis

    It rather pisses me off to have someone, anyone for any reason, spy on me. I don’t spy on them. I am more then offended by targeted advertising or any software designer that has the audacity to try and anticipate me. I for one will not respond to any unsolicited advertising what so ever. I will go out of my way to boycott those to do. I am serious here. If that means not drink Coke or eating the candy bar have for 30 years so be it. I will not shop at certain real stores and that is extended to the net.

    I will not give Google my mobile number and if they don’t like it to bad, I am not playing that game. I was never a true fan of the great sea of anonymity. Anonymous can not be trusted. Lots of real people can’t be trusted either but at least you known who they are.

    I will only purchase things from sellers I trust. You have one chance to earn that trust and once withdrawn it will never and I mean never be returned.

    In my view my name and anything associated with it is copyrighted to me. It you want to use my name, any associated data or anything else like my image you get my written permission for each and every item or you are in infringement.

    That my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • http://www.webpronews.com/author/drew-bowling Drew Bowling

      You’re on my side of the street. Honestly, advertisers should be paying me for the mind-colonization of the jingles and images I unwillingly remember. It infuriates me that precious real estate is being used in my brain to store scenes of Coca-Cola polar bears and regurgitated sentiments from my childhood (Honda/Ferris Bueller).

  • Ed

    Re: The Internet Or Your Privacy: Which Do You Value More?

    In regard to your question about “do we miss the good old days of privacy and anonymity”, in my opinion it is absolutely essential that anonymity remains an option for Internet users. Not only to prevent unwanted advertising messages or data collection (note that Amazon sells Kindles with or without ads, and many people pay the extra $20 or so to have it without ads, not a bad concept), but anonymity allows web sites which expose governmental wrong-doing to exist without the authors being threatened (because they are unknown). Governmental wrong-doing may not be such an issue in the United States, but in *many* supposedly democratic countries in Europe, corruption is the norm, up to the highest levels in government and the judiciary. Internet is the only media exposing this behaviour at the moment, the normal press is unwilling to do so.

    In short, yes, I miss the “good old days”, but they are not necessarily over yet. There are still anonymity options available, for example I2P and Tor, and VPN services.

  • http://www.infowars.com Banatu

    I dislike things like Google gathering my info and using it in an attempt to target me with advertising as much as anyone, it’s annoying and a little insulting. But such is life — just like ads on TV. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to advertise their product or make profits, and of course they’re going to use whatever technology helps them achieve the best results.

    The real danger in others acquiring your info is physical — someone coming to your location to cause you harm, stealing your wealth, or getting you involved in some sort shenanigans which ultimately results in you being charged with a crime, fined and/or jailed. Your daily habits being recorded makes it easy for others with access to this information to know your habits well enough to do any of these things at will.

    So, like a few others have alluded to here, the danger is not advertisers. Improvements to online privacy are well and good for spam purposes, but anyone who thinks such measures are blocking information from being gathered by real criminals and/or government agencies is delusional. They will do so with or without permission. Don’t let yourself be lulled into ever believing otherwise.

    The ONLY way your information is going to be truly safe is if you protect it; it’s your info, it’s your responsibility — not Microsoft’s or Google’s or the government’s. If you don’t understand exactly what’s happening to your info when you type it into a box on the internet, you probably shouldn’t do it. Sometimes this will be inconvenient. You might have to go to an actual store instead of buying from cheapcrapfromchina.com. This is your decision. Ignorance and laziness is no excuse here any more than it is for the law.

  • http://www.infowars.com Banatu

    p.s. — great article. Balanced, well-researched, and an important, current subject. I enjoyed it much. Thanks!