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War over the Internet

BY KIRSTEN JACOBSEN | DECEMBER 09, 2010 7:10 AM

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We all have skeletons in our proverbial closets. But until this new age of sophisticated technological information-gathering, we were all fairly certain these personal collections would not be probed.

Boy, were we wrong.

Though it may seem unfair to begrudge online companies for accessing and tapping the same information we give out so freely, the average online consumer has the right to a certain degree of privacy. If I do not have a record of my own Internet browsing history, it does not seem fitting for a business to have it — let alone know my Facebook identification number, my e-mail address, and my location in the world to sell for profit.

That’s why a “Do Not Track” measure regulating the collection of a person’s web history would be so beneficial to consumers. The Federal Trade Commission-backed option could force online advertisers and data miners to actually respect personal privacy.

It appears Internet users are clamoring for this increased privacy control. A study conducted by the public interest group Consumer Watchdog this summer found 84 percent of Americans favor the creation of a Do Not Track mechanism.

There are two sides to this coin: While the idea of forever hiding embarrassing searches or playing down one’s penchant for viewing images of cats in sweaters is tempting, there is also the distinct possibility that a “reverse globalization” of the web will occur.

Linking myriad online accounts, your favorite blogs, or shopping sites to your e-mail, even a running ticker of news you hand-select — the web has become an all-inclusive backstage pass into the daily lives of any and everyone.

Until now, the FTC “has opted for an industry self-regulation approach,” said Lyombe Eko, a University of Iowa associate professor of journalism and media law.

But, he said, “some critics would prefer a stronger government role in the protection of privacy, through a sort of ‘regulated self-regulation’ mechanism.”

A baby step proffered by the Digital Advertising Alliance last week is yet another self-regulating program for advertisers, but this one allows for the location of cookies in a device that might otherwise track information. Naturally, this issue is already stirring right-wing accusations that that Washington will inevitably “mandate technology” or track the online advertisers themselves.

These claims could never gather the political muster necessary to pass through Congress. And as of now, any advancement made in the War on Tracking remains a long way off (politically and technologically).

If no regulations or legislation are passed, though, this information space race will only intensify.

And unfortunately, the problem is not confined to America. Multilateral efforts will be necessary to enact truly binding measures on Internet advertisers and data-miners worldwide. Given that Facebook cannot even manage to keep questionable middle-age Nicaraguan men from attempting to “friend” me, this sounds like a job that will keep the United Nations busy for decades to come.

Nothing yet delineates what is “public forum” versus “private space” on the web, as in American judicial law. Future politicians won’t stand a chance in the media limelight, assuming the searches or messages associated with their teenage-selves perpetually haunt them. As we have recently seen, even foreign and American diplomats are easily implicated by what they have said and done online.

In the meantime, we will suffer through the creepily tailored ads in the sidebars, the irritating “Which ad experience would you prefer?” prompts on Hulu, and the awkward friend requests. But if you’re looking to bury your online persona, don’t be fooled: Your closet is the first place they’ll look.


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