Perspective: Privacy on the Web

Take a look at most any tech blog over the past month, or the technology section of most major news outlets – one thing is clear privacy on the Internet is a huge problem right now. Facebook, MySpace, and Google have all ran into privacy concerns this month (multiple times for some) – but should this really surprise us? The short answer is no, we should not be surprised – the truth is much more complex than that.

One thing that we have to remember is that there is no such thing as free. We all use Google Maps, Gmail, Google Search and so on everyday – for free. But it really is not free, Google did not become a billion dollar behemoth by working for free, nor should it. However, like with Facebook and MySpace, Google has decided that its best business model is not to charge users, rather to serve ads and to charge other companies (companies that eventually charge consumers).

So what does this type of business model have to do with privacy? A lot actually, advertisers know that they are wasting money serving the same ad for the same product to everyone. To spend their money more effectively they need better data on their customers, the more information advertisers have the better job they can do to get you to spend money on their products – more importantly the more data you can give them, the more money they are willing to spend on that data.

Facebook, MySpace and Google have a lot of data on you. A lot. That should scare everyone, because all that data they have on you (searches, links clicked, stuff shared with friends, ages, income, jobs, where you live) is priceless to advertisers. These companies are faced with making the tough call of how much data and what data they should not be handing over to advertisers.

For the most part it is a fair trade-off Google Search is the best out there, and what do I really care if they share my search history with advertising companies (so long as they don’t link it to my name) who really cares. The line begins to be crossed when they start sharing data that allows you to be targeted individually and not as a subset. (whereby ‘subset’ I mean to be targeted as say a 27 year old male living in Seattle, instead of a 27 year old male living in Seattle named Ben Brooks). When companies start giving out this type of data is when their users start to get uncomfortable.

So where then should we expect – demand – privacy on the internet? When you pay for it. Unless you are paying for the service you are using, it is a safe bet that in some way, shape or form your privacy has been compromised. Don’t take this to mean that your identity has been stolen, but rather that the information you are sharing is being shared with quite a lot of people.

Let’s think about this another way. Right now Facebook has ben lambasted by most of the world for all the privacy issues that are popping up with the site. However, the site is free for all users and makes money off of advertising, the better job Facebook can do with the advertising the more money they make – make no mistake it is money that they want, not you to be happy (unless that leads to more money, which it usually does). Now users are leaving in droves because Facebook in their opinion has gone too far with compromising their privacy. So if Facebook were to offer a paid service, say $5 a month for a completely secure, and private account – no ads – would you be willing to pay?

What is the price of your privacy?

It is certainly worth the $5 a month to me, but is it to the rest of the world? I think not, and Facebook I would suspect already knows this.

The scariest part about privacy issues on the Internet is that there is a growing indifference towards it with most users. People simply don’t care, whether they think it doesn’t matter, or they just don’t realize what it all means, people don’t care about their privacy as much as they should.

Take this weekend to start caring about privacy, for the same reason that you don’t tell strangers your private info when asked on the city bus, you should stop telling the casual net user as well.

Originally posted for members on: May 21, 2010
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