The Evolving Technologies Of Internet Privacy

Policy Backgrounders | Privacy

No. 156
Friday, April 27, 2001
by Gregory F. Rehmke

Opting Out Of The Personalized Technology World

People who have lived in small towns are used to diminished privacy. They are used to knowing the people they buy magazines from in the corner store and borrow books from in the local library. But most Americans in cities and suburbs make their purchases from people they don't know. And for them this era of electronic observation is new and sometimes troubling.

Table II - The Electronic Privacy Information Center's Online Guide to Practical Privacy Tools

"Not everyone wants data 'mined' from personal browsing behavior."

Not everyone wants data "mined" from their personal browsing and purchasing behavior. Many who grew up in small towns didn't like having much of the information they considered personal known by everybody in town. Similarly, many now resent the electronic gathering of information about what they have purchased and the sites they have visited on the Internet. They don't like the idea that companies and advertisers are collecting the crumbs of information they leave as they move from site to site, execute searches, research topics and make purchases.

For people who are willing to trade the "personalized" service on and other Web sites in exchange for anonymous surfing (and even anonymous shopping!), there are a growing number of products and services. Web-browsing privacy can be protected by using anonymous Web browsers like SafeWeb, e-mail encryption software like HushMail and cookie managers like Cookie Cruncher [see Table II].

Of the new firms announcing software tools that allow for anonymous Internet browsing, SafeWeb, IDZap and ZeroKnowledge received the highest ratings from PC Magazine.

If people don't want anyone to observe their Web browsing they can log onto and from there search Web sites without being watched (unless someone is standing behind them watching!).

IDZap offers a similar service, hiding one's identity from the Web site being visited.

ZeroKnowledge Systems features an extensive set of software tools that allow for anonymous e-mail and Web browsing for a number of users.

"New software tools allow anonymous Internet browsing and e-mail encryption."

Some of these privacy tools, cookie management tools in particular, are featured in the latest version of Platform for Privacy Practices (P3P) standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The biggest privacy news is Microsoft's plan, mentioned above, to include P3P in the next release of its Web browser, Internet Explorer. P3P is a set of standards for both Web browsers and Web sites that allows users to indicate their privacy preferences and to limit the release of personal information to Web sites that agree to keep that information private.2

Critics of private-sector Internet privacy technologies have complained that they are hard to use and that most people won't bother with them. Microsoft's plan to include P3P in Internet Explorer would seem to address this concern, since it will be fairly easy for people to tell Explorer what their privacy preferences are and let it certify the privacy practices of Web sites. However, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and some other privacy advocates are not happy with P3P and Microsoft. EPIC contends that P3P "fails to comply with baseline standards for privacy protection."3 It argues that P3P will just make the collection of information more systematic and insists that there is a "right of individuals to control the collection, use and dissemination of their personal information that is held by others."

Publicly Funded Vouchers. Unlike privately funded programs, publicly funded vouchers are paid for with taxpayer dollars and can be used at participating public and private schools. These programs may or may not include religious schools. Publicly funded voucher programs include Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program, Cleveland's Scholarship Program, Florida's statewide A+ program and longstanding programs in Maine and Vermont. [See sidebar: Taxpayer-Funded Voucher Programs.]

"Individuals don't even 'own' information about themselves."

One problem with claiming that individuals can and should "own" the information others have about them is that it is obviously not true. We don't and can't own our reputations, for example. There are two parties to each transaction and unless there is an agreement or common law rule about keeping information about a transaction private, both parties possess the information about the transaction. Some information is sensitive and some clearly isn't, and traditions and standards have evolved to distinguish between them.

Subscribers to Time magazine shouldn't be surprised to begin getting solicitations from other magazines, especially other magazines published by AOL Time Warner. (Interestingly, any legislation designed to prevent firms from selling information about consumers to other firms would tend to harm small companies more than large conglomerates, since the conglomerates could still transfer information among their separate companies - which would probably lead to further "clarifying" legislation.)

Some privacy advocates fear that consumers will be manipulated by corporations that know "too much" about their purchasing patterns. The concern is that people will buy things they really didn't want until some crafty advertisement made them want it. Somehow, goes this reasoning, the collection of more and more information on the Internet will make this problem even worse. Of course, such claims can also be made of books, museums and operas - we are unlikely to know how enjoyable they are until we discover they exist.4 It's true that we are unlikely to purchase products we don't know about, but that doesn't mean we will blindly buy whatever product is advertised. The traditional view of advertising, according to economist Israel Kirzner, "saw advertising as a fundamentally baneful phenomenon, thwarting the tendency of competitive markets to allocate resources efficiently." However the emerging view, according to Kirzner, sees advertising as playing an "essential and constructive role [in] the functioning of markets."5 We live in a world of goods and services that must compete for our attention. We don't have enough time to learn about every good and every experience available to us. Companies look for ways to get the attention of people who might want to buy their products and services. And past purchases are clues about people's preferences for future purchases.

Read Article as PDF