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.