Privacy Woe?

When it comes to protecting privacy online, the biggest foes we have to fear are ourselves.

When it comes to protecting privacy online, the biggest foes we have to fear are ourselves.

Tracking the behavior of individuals while online can be considered insidious, because it happens behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the user. Yet most of this occurs with the use of those tiny files known as cookies. And there are plenty of cookie-muncher, -cruncher and -buster software applications out there to allow individuals to block or remove cookies.

There is also the safe-surfing approach. Call it abstinence. Dont use the Net or dont use a particular site, if you dont feel comfortable. The Pew Research Center last year figured that 12 million Web users had stopped shopping online because they were concerned about privacy. That kept $12.4 billion out of the e-commerce world in 2000. More than a few dot-coms could have been kept alive by that injection into the overall online shopping pie.

Now comes all the huzzah over Microsofts .Net and the Redmond crews humble offer to store and help you manage all your personal information online. Better to have it all in one place that you control, goes the theory, than to have it scattered who knows where. And who better to help you than Microsoft?

Forget that its a Microsoft plan. Ignore the debate — if it can be called that — of whether Microsoft can be trusted. This is an elephant that cant fly. Unless we, as individuals, allow it to.

It makes simply no sense for Web surfers to participate in any attempt to create a centralized, private database of information about a large percentage of Web users. This is true whether the procreator is Microsoft, Network Solutions Inc., which just might want to market the names it collects when it collects domain registration fees, Novell, or anyone else.

A centralized database that included germane address and demographic information about the majority of Web users would certainly be a boon to marketers — and, ergo, the commercial underpinnings of the Net. After what weve all seen the last 12 months, we should all be rooting for the creation of an economically viable marketplace of Net services.

But that doesnt mean that individual users of the Net have any responsibility to turn over their personal information to database creators and marketers. Indeed, voluntarily allowing a single central authority to aggregate that information would be irresponsible.

Economic, political and social history is rife with examples that the collection of data on individuals chiefly benefits the collector. Control of the information is nine-tenths of the value. As San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor notes, "Even if Microsoft doesnt misuse the data, the temptation of this central storehouse will be overwhelming to other busybodies. When the government or other third parties with a subpoena or court order want access, theyll get it."

Or take the financially motivated example of Toysmart and other failing dot-coms in the past year. When push came to shove and they were starved for capital, violating privacy policies and selling data about customers became a real practice, with no ones consent.

Simply put, each and every merchant should earn the customers trust. The best choice is more choices, not fewer, more decision-making points, not fewer, more sites offering more reasons to shop there and provide basic information, rather than fewer.

That is not to say that users wont need software that allows them to more easily manage their everyday affairs on the Web, so they dont have to repeatedly enter the same information when they choose to share it and so they dont lose track of their passwords.

But it does not have to be integrated into a browser. That should be a separate application that a user should place on the hard drives of his or her own possession, under his or her own control.

There are already tools like Anonymizer, to make you invisible while you traverse sites. You can use a throwaway e-mail address, perhaps from Hotmail, when you want to avoid jamming your main mailbox with spam. If you want to protect what you say, learn how to encrypt messages.

But if you really want to protect your personal data, dont give it out.

And no one is forcing you to give it out to a single, overarching, commercially motivated authority — of any genesis.

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Chief Content Officer at Ziff Davis Internet and a former Editor-in-Chief at Interactive Week. He can be reached at [email protected]