Saturday, May 14, 2011

Privacy: More insights and ramblings

The Internet has brought forth some amazing innovations in the time of its public existence, but the debate over privacy could be the one thing that ultimately delays, or even puts a stop to innovation online. Privacy is a double-edged sword. It can bring sensitivity and alertness to consumers, but it can also “kill off” Internet produced goods such as online media. However, we can solve this severe problem by setting up a definition of what is online privacy.

The current problem with privacy online is that web services right now do not give privacy enough focus, and some services discount privacy altogether. Supposing that some companies and service providers on the Internet do consider privacy to be important, they probably still don’t protect a consumer’s right to privacy as well as they should.

Consumers on the other hand, expect complete privacy, which is ridiculous considering that that model is entirely opposite of what the web was designed for. The Internet was designed for collaboration, not isolationism. If a consumer really desired privacy, then they should not connect at all because the web was not designed for security and privacy. Albeit, there should be a certain expectation of privacy online.

There’s another reason why we can’t expect one hundred percent privacy online. Hint, it has to do with media consumption. General web users need to have the fundamental understanding that when they’re consuming online media, chances are they are being tracked by advertisements. This allows advertisers to know their audience and allows an online media organization to continue to receive revenue for these advertisements. It is ethical for Internet media companies to track you through advertisements online since it provides you with affordable or even free online content. If it wasn’t for those advertisements, chances are that the price of content would be dramatically higher. Now, when I say it is ethical for ads to track consumers, there are a big set of exceptions and rules to this.

One of those rules to ads that track consumers is that it must be clearly stated by the content producer or organization that the advertisement is tracking you. There must be full and proper disclosure that advertisements may be tracking you or logging personal data from your visits. If the organization has properly disclosed that advertisements are tracking you, then it’s not a problem.. Media sites must also comply with the rule that advertisements can only track and log certain types of data. [S1] For instance, ads on a given site could reasonably track your time and date of visit, or the amount of time you’ve spent on that site. Advertisements could also track your dynamic IP address, which is not a fixed address for your computer, but rather, is one that changes often and only provides a relative location of where you were when you visited the site. This location data is not very precise and is simply relative. This data could be logged within reason. Now what can’t be logged is another thing. Data such as an email address, if you’re logged into the site that stores your email address, cannot be logged. Phone numbers, a person’s full name, a person’s social network picture, and so forth, should also not be stored. To put it briefly, logging of data for ads is acceptable, it it’s not logging anything too personal.

Corporations and web services also have the responsibility of providing users with the option to opt-in rather than having to opt-out. In other words, users should have to explicitly accept, or opt-in to tracking services, instead of users being forced in there, and then have to intentionally opt-out, which is a corrupt privacy model. The user should understand the consequences of opting-in, which should be clearly communicated by the service providers, and then the user could make an educated decision on whether to opt-in, or deny the service altogether.

If web content providers put into practice the “opt-in model” and the “proper data collection” model, then privacy won’t become another problem for a company, but instead, just another part of their online strategy.

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