Chip Shots by Chip Griffin

Privacy Nuts Hurt Us All

Privacy matters.  We all should be able to keep things private when done in the privacy of our own homes.  But when you go out on the public Internet, no absolute right to privacy exists.  Nor should it.  Tracking your clickstream, using cookies to measure visitor behavior and perhaps target ads, building databases of activity, intentions, recommendations, or anything else should all be considered kosher behavior.

Those who would advocate a Do Not Track list, rights to access all data in a vendor’s possession, severe restrictions on the use of clickstream data, or other "protections" in the name of "privacy" do more harm than good. 

Why shouldn’t we want better targeted ads?  Is it not better to see an ad for something we might be interested in than something random?

Why shouldn’t we want better targeted pitches from vendors?  Why wouldn’t you want to know about a good deal on a book, movie, or other product you might actually want to purchase?

Why shouldn’t a web site owner improve the product based on click behavior?  Isn’t it a great idea for web sites to be more effective?

Frankly, I’m getting tired about the mantra that "I own my data and I want to control it."  Baloney. If you created it and gave it willingly to some third party, they have a right to do what they will with it, unless they promise you otherwise. If you don’t like it, don’t give them content either explicitly or by surfing to their site.

Do consumers matter?  You bet.  Should vendors care about what consumers want?  You bet.  Will vendors that listen to their customers do better — all other things being equal — than those who don’t?  Probably.  But there’s a difference between companies voluntarily — and I mean truly of their own volition — doing things and forcing them to do so through legislative, regulatory, or quasi-regulatory means.

Doc Searls spoke this afternoon at the Defrag conference and took companies to task for a number of things, including why the same consumer review can’t be used for Amazon, NetFlix, and other sites.  The answer?  You can, but what’s the incentive to the vendors to make it easy?  A key part of the secret sauce at Amazon and NetFlix are their recommendation engines.  We must not forget that these companies need to operate on a for-profit basis, not merely for the benefit of consumers.  If you don’t like it, do as Esther Dyson suggested at Defrag: go to one of their competitors, get them to adopt what you want, and make it so successful that the big boys need to take it on to maintain a competitive edge.

What about health care data?  Doc argued that we should own our health care data and providers should have to make it easy for us to make it portable and controllable by us.  Is it mostly a good idea, yes.  As someone with a treatable medical condition, I would love to have the data more easily available to the various physicians I have seen over the years. But am I under any delusion that I own that data?  No way.  The doctors themselves created the data.  Yes, it is about me, but I didn’t create it.  If I did, I could very easily have copied it before handing it over.  That’s my recourse.

Doc Searls asked what it would be like if it was a two way street where
consumer and vendor both benefit.  He suggested that since he doesn’t
like to hear ads when he calls tech support, he could enter into an
arrangement where he would pay 50 cents per call to avoid the ad.  And
that’s a fine idea.  At least it recognizes that there is no absolute
right to avoid ads. Of course, in the Q&A session after his talk, he backtracked and said he was just trying to be provocative by saying it.

For the successful future of the Internet, we must learn to tame our privacy hangups.  We all have them.  Ultimately, the more that vendors, publishers, advertisers, and others know, the better the experience can be for all of us. 

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  1. Chip,
    Great post! I’ve recently commented on my blog about licensing my personal data. Though I need to go back and clarify that point more, I still believe that people own their data.
    Specifically their personal data. However, while I think privacy is on many people’s minds, my point is that companies are making money off my information.
    I’d love to make money off my information – I share it everywhere and don’t have an issue with privacy on the Internet. Mainly because there isn’t any in the first place.
    You’re right in that privacy nuts will hurt us. Using regulations and laws to force any entity to do something they don’t want to do will result in higher costs, or more inconvenience at the least.
    Thanks for the post, it really helped me clarify my thoughts around information, sharing, privacy and the public market for said information a little bit more.

  2. I’m certainly no expert in the area of privacy concerns, but I think there’s an additional layer here.
    You ask, “Why shouldn’t we want better targeted ads?” and so on. That’s part of the issue, but I think much of the concern from the “privacy nuts” is based in a fear of what might happen to that data if it were to fall into someone else’s hands.
    If Company X collects all sorts of data about Jane Doe’s Web surfing habits, and that database is hacked or that server is stolen or something, Jane might be concerned. Even if it’s not data that could lead to identity theft, she might not want the data thieves to, say, publish that she visited such and such a Web site and searched for this and that.

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