Why You Shouldn’t Expect Online Privacy

13 Mar Why You Shouldn’t Expect Online Privacy

Information Week, By Michael Hickins, March 12, 2009

First let me say that I only surf pornography sites for the purpose of researching human behavior — and someday all of mankind will benefit from my acquired wisdom. That said, the controversy surrounding Google’s new behavioral ad-tracking program is the most recent recurrence of a kind of foolishness that afflicts the online community from time to time. Come on people — of course they’re going to track this kind of information. They use it to make money. Why shouldn’t they? Expecting otherwise isn’t just the height of naiveté. It flies against any notion of fairness. Privacy advocates argue that Google is appropriating “our” data. Same argument for Facebook. I’m sorry. Saying “I want to own my data” is about on a par with claiming that “content wants to be free.” For the sake of argument (and comparison), let’s look at offline life. Say I’m friends with someone — let’s say a girl — and I send her a Polaroid of me frolicking in the buff. Let’s say she doesn’t throw up and she actually keeps it, and we remain “close” friends. Now let’s say I marry some other girl and I decide I want my picture back. After all, it’s my picture, right? In all decency, she should send it back — but it’s not mine anymore. It’s hers. Fast-forward to Facebook. Say I unfriend someone, or I give up on Facebook because I think MySpace is much slicker. Does this mean I get to have “my” profile picture back? Not a chance, and there’s no legal reason for Facebook to give it back. Not only that, it’s absolutely unreasonable to ask Facebook to go through the trouble of scrubbing it from its databases. It gives us enough for free. Free is in fact the issue here. If I have a purely commercial relationship with a company — like Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN).com or iTunes — I’m generating revenue for it very directly. Same thing with my bank. It wants me as a depositor so that it can claim to have enough deposits to cover its collateralized debt obligations. Those people must guard my data jealously. But even those organizations get to keep my data if I go away. In fact, they need the customer records for all kinds of regulatory compliance reasons. And those are companies I’m actually paying, either directly or indirectly. But companies whose services I use for F-R-E-E free? I have no expectation that they will do anything but try to monetize my existence in any way they can. And since I like their services enough to use them, I hope they actually do make money off me so that they can stay in business. I know no one is worrying about Google (NSDQ: GOOG)’s fate, but there are plenty of sites I use for free (like Pandora) that are hanging off the hairy edge of existence, and I want them to hold on for dear life. If that means exploiting my behavioral patterns, my predilections, and my aggregated demographic data, I’m OK with that. But if I pay for pornography, damn it, don’t reveal anything about my top-secret research. Or my wife will kill me.