IQ News: It’s None Of Your Business

The Web tries to shed its Big Brother image on privacy.
The current world of online privacy is basically the equivalent of a junior high school lunchroom: Users say, “I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else.” And everyone’s very trusting until they learn a big-mouthed gossip has repeated all of their private disclosures.
Substitute cyberspace for the cafeteria and the public is just as wary. Web sites try to provide relevant information to users by asking for personal demographic data and promising not to share it with any third parties, namely advertisers. Consumers, on the other hand, are wrestling with the notion that the Web is Big Brother. According to a recent study by Louis Harris, 61 percent of non-Internet users say privacy concerns keep them from getting online, and 78 percent of current users say the issue makes them less likely to use the Web more extensively.
To address these concerns, sites increasingly are posting privacy policies, explaining what they will do–and more importantly not do–with the data they gather. And, technology may help improve privacy too. Many companies are working on tools that will block the transmission of certain data to third parties and allow users to more readily pick and choose what data they choose to send out into the ether. Together, the initiatives could make the medium move closer to what advertisers say it can do: help, rather than hinder, users’ lives.
Kelly Rodriques, CEO of Novo/Ironlight Interactive, San Francisco, admits that right now, making consumers trust those who ask for data is Job One. It ” is now raised to a level of awareness where everyone’s got to address it,” he says.
However, like many in his field, he believes that if sites deliver enough value for data, consumers will deliver. “Don’t take any information from me without asking, but if you get value, I’ll tell you anything,” is how he explains the bargain.
Rodriques cites a promotion on the American Airlines Web site, which offers contest winners a customized vacation based on their travel preferences. The collected information aids the airline in delivering future services to users.
Barak Berkowitz, vice president of marketing at Infoseek, Sunnyvale, Calif., agrees that portals and other sites have the user’s interest at heart when they ask for personal information. “Whatever information they give us, we need to give them much more information and higher value,” Berkowitz says.
But as the Harris poll shows, most consumers don’t see it that way. Thus, two weeks ago, eight portal companies, including Infoseek, along with dozens of other Web sites, joined an initiative called the Privacy Partnership. The partnership is sponsoring a banner campaign that connects to a new Web site affiliated with Internet privacy group TrustE, to provide privacy information to consumers and publishers.
Andrew Zolli, vice president of interactive media at New York’s Siegel & Gale, which designed the ads and the partnership site, says the group was partly motivated by “a very consistent message in the industry to be self-regulated.”
Consumers’ worst fears seemed to be validated in August when online communities company GeoCities was cited by the Federal Trade Commission for releasing personal details about its customers–in violation of its own privacy policy.
Bruce Zanca, vice president of communications for Santa Monica, Calif.-based GeoCities, says the incident, in which the company inadvertently provided “optional” information supplied by users to a third party, was a mistake that was rectified quickly.
As part of a settlement, GeoCities agreed to rewrite the privacy statement on its site. The site also now includes a link to the FTC’s site, and the company agreed to obtain parental permission before collecting any personal data from children 12 and younger.
Zanca claims the problem, though unwelcome, ultimately led to the company forming a better policy than others in the online world.
“The matter with the FTC has given us an opportunity to clarify what our procedures are and lift the cloud of ambiguity,” he says.
As Internet users themselves have become more savvy, they have increasingly questioned the use of “cookies,” tracking devices attached to a user’s Web browser which follow their online movements. Susan Scott, executive director at TrustE, says consumers are smart to be wary, though the vast majority of companies utilize cookies for legitimate research purposes.
“[The use of cookies] is usually for good things,” she observes. “But it’s dangerous in the hands of [companies] who are not going to use it properly.”
Infoseek’s Berkowitz adds: “The reason that the Internet is such a great medium for advertisers is our ability to provide truly relevant advertising. The customer sees it and goes, ‘Thank you for giving me this ad.’ The ability to cookie is a control enabler to avoid ads that annoy customers.”
At the same time, the use of cookies by third parties, such as companies that serve ads to content sites, have left many publishers wondering if the practice violates their own privacy policies.
One potential solution is the “Privacy Proxy” tool being developed by online ad network Real Media, New York. The tool, which will be integrated with the company’s Open AdStream serving technology by the end of the year, allows sites to provide aggregate demographic information to the ad servers. However, by intercepting third-party cookies, it blocks the transmission of personal information about individual users.
“No cookie from a third party is actually sent to the user,” says Greg Gendron, vice president of technology marketing for Real Media.
Others predict the future will include Web browsers that ask users’ permission to divulge certain information as often–or infrequently–as they like, making the business of collecting data better than the all-or-nothing proposition it often is today. Chris Evans, founder of Raleigh, N.C.-based ad management company Accipiter and vice chairman of its Engage Technologies unit, describes a process in which a user could agree to provide his or her ZIP code to anyone who wants it, e-mail address to some, and credit card number to no one.
“If the marketplace is going to grow to the scale that we all want it to and that we’re anticipating, there has to be consumer trust,” he says. Packaging within browsers makes sense, he says, “because there’s a real potential to have the baby thrown out with the bathwater.”