The Wall Street Journal has been running an important series about the collection and exploitation of personal information on the Net. As part of that series, it is featuring a debate today between me and the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper about online privacy – more particularly, the tradeoff between privacy and personalization.
My essay begins like this:
In a 1963 Supreme Court opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren observed that “the fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a great danger to the privacy of the individual.” The advances have only accelerated since then, along with the dangers. Today, as companies strive to personalize the services and advertisements they provide over the Internet, the surreptitious collection of personal information is rampant. The very idea of privacy is under threat.
Most of us view personalization and privacy as desirable things, and we understand that enjoying more of one means giving up some of the other. To have goods, services and promotions tailored to our personal circumstances and desires, we need to divulge information about ourselves to corporations, governments or other outsiders.
This tradeoff has always been part of our lives as consumers and citizens. But now, thanks to the Net, we’re losing our ability to understand and control those tradeoffs — to choose, consciously and with awareness of the consequences, what information about ourselves we disclose and what we don’t. Incredibly detailed data about our lives is being harvested from online databases without our awareness, much less our approval …
And here’s the start of Harper’s piece:
If you surf the web, congratulations! You are part of the information economy. Data gleaned from your communications and transactions grease the gears of modern commerce. Not everyone is celebrating, of course. Many people are concerned and dismayed—even shocked—when they learn that “their” data are fuel for the World Wide Web.
Who is gathering the information? What are they doing with it? How might this harm me? How do I stop it?
These are all good questions. But rather than indulging the natural reaction to say “stop,” people should get smart and learn how to control personal information. There are plenty of options and tools people can use to protect privacy—and a certain obligation to use them. Data about you are not “yours” if you don’t do anything to control them. Meanwhile, learning about the information economy can make clear its many benefits …