I’m starting to get frustrated by the way in which the debate about internet privacy is currently being waged. There appears to be a constant media buzz about how we’re all at terrible risk from hawkish advertisers who are just waiting to swoop in, steal our browsing history and then make millions from it.
I hope I’m not alone in my disdain for this alarmist and arguably ignorant view of how the Internet works.
I should be clear of course; I’m not against internet privacy. Neither am I advocating any kind of Big Brother-esque government monitoring of internet traffic. My beef lies with the panicky reactions we’ve seen from the media, governments, the EU and many internet users in regards to internet privacy.[break]
Barely a month goes by without a story about how Facebook is planning to sell customer details to advertisers. This then sparks inevitable outrage from users who feel they’ve been wronged in some way before Facebook backs down again, forced to go back to the drawing board and work out how it can actually make money from its social media machine.
The Facebook example is a particularly good case study, actually. I find it constantly amazing that people will be splashing around drunken photos of themselves on it one week, and then the next week will denounce Facebook for telling an advertiser they’ve listed fashion in their interests. Granted they’ve made the choice to put up the pictures but haven’t had a say in whether Facebook has shared their details or not, but is the value of what Facebook is sharing really so great to them?
Facebook - privacy bogeyman or just trying to make money?
It gets even more paradoxical when you point out that Facebook can’t share information it doesn’t have; users have to make the choice to upload personal information such as their interests, location and relationship status. I know that this information is then only available to friends, but I find it’s those with a friends list numbering in the high hundreds or even thousands that often complain the loudest when they feel their privacy has been violated. How much privacy did you think you had exactly while you were broadcasting every status update, photo and even your location to every person you’ve ever met?
The fact that Facebook has always been and will always be free also seems to be forgotten, lost in the backlash at Facebook’s audacity at actually trying to make some money while keeping its service free.
The majority of the fuss centres on the cookies that get downloaded to consumers' PCs that can track their movements and report back on what they've been viewing. Advertisers can then use this information to better target adverts at that particular PC, hopefully improving their effectiveness and their relevance to the user.
This sounds like a win-win situation to me, but for those who don’t like the sound of it then privacy controls have existed in web browsers for years. There are even privacy-specific browsers out there, free to download for whoever wants them. These options have been consistently ignored by consumers, though, who only seem to take net privacy seriously when it’s accompanied by a scare mongering headline.
Some don't have a choice about their privacy
It's also ironic that internet privacy will often make news headlines right next to articles about the latest celebrity relationship gossip, or paparazzi snaps of the royals. We love to pry into other people’s lives but don’t like it so much when the boot is on the other foot and it’s our own details being shared.
A part of the problem is down to the fact that companies are still trying to work out how best to make money from the Internet, especially in the current economic climate. This is forcing companies to investigate other revenue streams beyond the traditional advertising model; a strategy that's going to lead to a number of conflicts as companies attempt to find where the line of acceptability lies.
Unfortunately for us, though, public opinion needs to change too. The opinion that the Internet is free seems commonplace, but behind most news stories, articles or online services is someone who needs to earn a wage. The first moves have been made in changing this perception - the recent move by The Times of charging for online content is the obvious example - but it'll be a long hard road to get people to pay for what has been free for so long.
How successful the approach adopted by The Times has been will only become known with time, but changes are definitely afoot on the big old World Wide Web. Regardless of what shape these changes take, it’ll be an interesting place to watch for the next ten years. Let us know your thoughts in the forums