Would You Opt In to Let Google and Facebook Shadow You Online?

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-06-19 Print this article Print

One of the beautiful things about the Internet is that it frees us from the constraints of our physical existence.

Want to rent a DVD and buy a new laptop? You used to have to drive to Blockbuster and then to Best Buy. More often than not, thanks to the mass consumerization in the U.S., you could do both in the same strip mall.

But with the Web, you can get the video from Netflix in one browser window, while you order a new PC from Best Buy's e-commerce site or even Amazon in another. This is deliciously liberating; you save time spent traveling and save money on gas.

But with each stroll on the Web, we leave the digital footprint that identifies our behaviors. Some companies are tracking consumers' online behavior to better target them with Web advertising. Jeffrey Chester, torch-bearer for the Center for Digital Democracy, has a glut of material on this here.

As I type this, a war is being waged between privacy advocates such as Chester, who rails about preserving our anonymity online, and the Web services providers who collect data about us to give us our virtual freedom.

This has been going on for years. I'm not pretending it is new. But the fight, which limped along in the Bush administration and continues in the Obama admin, is relevant in light of testimonies given to two U.S. House subcommittees yesterday by Chester and others on Capitol Hill.

The Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz covered the hearing, noting (paywall warning): Lawmakers in the House are drafting Internet-privacy legislation designed to provide consumers more information about what is being collected online and to give them greater control about how that data can be used.

Chester and his cohorts contend that the online data culling practices by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others are intrusive, invasive and downright infringing on our civil liberties. Chester underscored the argument in his testimony:

Powerful techniques of data collection, analysis, consumer profiling and tracking, interactive ad creation and targeting have emerged across the online venues Americans increasingly rely on for news, information, entertainment, health, and financial services. Whether using a search engine, watching an online video, creating content on a social network, receiving an e-mail, or playing an interactive video game, we are being digitally shadowed online. Our travels through the digital media are being monitored, and digital dossiers on us are being created--and even bought and sold.

Chester and others claim the vendors' data collection practices are so opaque as to be sneaky. His testimony proved effective, causing this response from Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.: "I think it's a big deal if someone tracks where you go and what you look at without your personal approval. We wouldn't like that in the non-Internet world, and I personally don't like it in the Internet world."

Privacy officials from Google, Yahoo and Facebook, who are almost invariably lawyers, have to suffer this kind of awkward phraseology every time they meet with the politicos in Washington, D.C. These officials claim Chester's hyperbole makes their practices look too evil when all they're trying to do is serve us helpful, efficient Web services.

But here is the Catch-22: To keep providing us with these services, these vendors claim they need to collect data on us to effectively turn an advertising dollar or $2 billion online. Of course, these vendors claim to do so with the utmost protection of our privacy.

How can both sides meet in the middle? One way would be for Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others to create a simple, "opt-in" button their users could click that would let service providers harvest and use data on the users. There are no such buttons now; instead consumers must sift through myriad terms of services legalese to find out how to opt out, if there even is such an option.

This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is. Most consumers are ignorant about the data collecting practices that go on at Web service providers. In fact, unless you're covering high tech or are suspicious by nature, chances are good that you didn't know about these online behavior practices, let alone how they work.

Case in point: My wife was shocked when I told her about companies' online data collection behaviors. She had no idea, and she uses the Web daily as a garden variety surfer.

And that is just fine with the Web service providers. If Web users know that companies are collecting information about them, the digital equivalent of following them around (as Barton roughly characterizes the action), they will most certainly not click a button to opt in.

Moreover, more of them may in fact opt out. Some companies, such as Yahoo, say both opt-out and opt-in buttons should be used, but that will be too confusing for consumers who haven't even grokked the concept yet.

But what about you Web-savvy users familiar with the way companies like to track us? If the House does in fact pass legislation requiring Google, Facebook and others to plug these opt-in Easy Buttons into their end-user pages, would you opt in, allowing providers to keep tabs on you?

Yes, no or maybe? Why?

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