Giving Up Privacy for a ‘Free’ Internet

If the Internet is to remain "free," the argument goes, advertising targeted to the "preferences and habits of consumers" is essential.
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(click thumbnail)Kevin O'Connor, Chairman & CEO, DoubleClickIf the Internet is to remain "free," the argument goes, advertising targeted to the "preferences and habits of consumers" is essential. Without these personalized ads, and the subsequent loss of privacy required to deliver them, "Websites will have to begin charging consumers" for access.

That's the logic of Kevin O'Connor, chairman and CEO of DoubleClick. His opinion is expressed in an op-ed piece titled "The High Cost of Net Privacy" that appeared this spring in the Wall Street Journal and in a subsequent interview with TV Technology. O'Connor's argument, in response to the outcry to his company's well-publicized dossier-building activities on Internet users, brings a sly new twist to the privacy wars.

Just as over-the-air television broadcasters previously threatened an end to "free TV" if they didn't get their way in Congress, the aggressive dot.coms of Internet advertising are borrowing the tactic to test the boundaries of Net privacy and the will of the public.

Interestingly, Kevin O'Connor views the Internet only in terms of an unexploited business opportunity, much as a land developer sees an unspoiled beach with an eye to what kind of resort might be built there. O'Connor repeatedly refers to Internet users as "consumers," a term that by definition categorizes them only as buyers of goods and services. The medium, in O'Connor's eyes, has one purpose: commerce.

AN EFFICIENT MARKETPLACE

"The Internet exposes more people to different companies, allowing consumers to comparison-shop and get the best prices possible," he wrote. "The more information people have about products and services, the more efficient the marketplace. Targeted advertising allows consumers to receive information that is timely and relevant. It eliminates the clutter of unwanted ads and solicitations. Most important, targeted advertising helps keep the Internet free for consumers."

In his effort to protect the "valuable Internet business model," O'Connor ignores the history and original promise of the global network. No consideration is made of the initial public funding that created the Net, or the opportunity to use it for a more democratic form of interactive communications. To O'Connor, the Internet is about commerce, pure and simple.

Of course, he is not alone. DoubleClick became an Internet privacy pariah mainly because the company made a very high-profile public relations blunder in linking Web-users’ personal habits with their actual names and addresses (a practice temporarily halted). O'Connor's tactics and mindset, it should be noted, are shared by a majority of the commercial Websites that see the Internet as the key to building a new economy.

PRIVACY POLICIES

In a recent survey of 29,000 Websites, San Diego-based Enonymous.com – operator of www.privacyratings.com – found that more than 77 percent of those surveyed offer no privacy policies. Even of the sites with privacy policies, the survey found, few promise any meaningful protection for visitors.

Nonprofit and educational sites fared no better. More than 85 percent of nonprofit groups and 96 percent of educational sites offer no policy at all on personal privacy. Even the government did better, with nearly 70 percent of .gov sites offering some privacy considerations and 36 percent offering promises of excellent protection.

ONLY PROMISES

Of course, privacy policies are only promises and don't have the backing of law. "A Web site might have a terrific privacy policy but it can be changed tomorrow. Privacy policies can be replaced with three simple words: subject to change," said Jason Catlett, founder and president of Junkbusters, an advocate for Internet privacy.

DoubleClick's argument for personalized Internet advertising drew sharp criticism. David Shenk, author of "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut and the End of Patience," discounted O'Connor's threat and suggests there's a "power game" in progress between the advertising industry and media companies, which include commercial Web sites.

"If advertising works on any medium, why wouldn't it work on the Web without hyper customization and a loss of privacy?" asked Shenk. "I think advertisers realize this is a new game and they are not just going to give in to the old rules."

PERSONAL PREFERENCES

DoubleClick, suggests Shenk, knew their plan to associate personal preference data to Web users by name would most likely not succeed. However, he said, the company probably wanted to test the concept to see how it might fail.

"Though DoubleClick's behavior was ridiculous and appalling, I think it was all about testing the limits of the system. To see who are their real adversaries – Congress or a grassroots groundswell – or to find if people might not care anymore because they are so distracted in this culture."

As to O'Connor's framing of the Internet in terms of a business model, Shenk said "when most people see the world strictly in terms of businesses and consumers" it's not surprising. "If you spend most of your waking hours thinking about how to make money, that's the way you think. There's something very unfortunate about that, but that's the way it is."

O'Connor's op-ed article also drew fire from Catlett, who called it "laughable, ludicrous and preposterous." DoubleClick, said Catlett, is "fishing around for an excuse and they've come up with a moldy old shoe.

"It's like the phone companies arguing that the cost of long distance is now so low they must monitor your conversations for keywords and sell information about the preferences you express during a phone call. If they aren't allowed to that, they might argue, their business models will be unsustainable and there will be no more long distance."

An Internet history lesson is in order, said Catlett. "The Internet didn't start as some privately funded TV network. It was an invention of the government and it thrived for years without any advertising at all. People paid to connect to the Internet. Do you really think if advertising went away that AT&T and American Express would shut down their Web sites? No, because it offers them considerable cost reductions and their brands depend on it."

Though Shenk said he disagreed with O'Connor's threats, he doesn't think it would be such a bad thing if more Websites did start charging fees for information. "You get what you pay for and advertising has a huge hidden cost," said Shenk. "It's a cost on our consciousness. It steals our thoughts away and distracts us. It's arguably one of the heaviest prices we are paying for living in this culture."