Privacy for Dummies?

How Corporations Hide Behind Net Privacy 'Solutions'

In other words, privacy isn't necessarily the problem, the image of privacy is. Small wonder, then, that so many of the so-called champions of privacy are those who have managed to collect the most personalized data. Take software company Firefly, a specialist in "personal profile management online." Before it was purchased by Microsoft, endorsed by TRUSTe, and licensed by Yahoo,, and Merrill Lynch, Firefly's bread and butter was an online "community" predicated on data collecting. On its Web site, Firefly promised users that they didn't "classify you into a fixed demographic group." Yet the media kit to advertisers told a different story: "Firefly lets you monitor the status of a campaign, both demographically and psychographically. . . . Think of the Firefly audience as one large, prequalified focus group."

More recently, Saul Klein, Firefly's vice president, told Business Week, "The whole point is to put the [consumer] in control of personal information."

Of course, if Klein and the gang really wanted to put the consumer in control, they'd make not collecting information the default. They'd make companies have to request data rather than disclose what they've already done.

To its credit, however, Firefly is helping to implement a technical platform, P3P, to augment TRUSTe-style branding. Developed by the nonprofit World Wide Web Consortium, P3P will allow users to set their own privacy preferences into browsers. When Janey runs into a site that doesn't meet her preferences, her browser will send a pop-up warning.

For P3P to make an impact, it must become a standard, adopted by the browsers and Web server developers alike. Some heavy hitters (Netscape, Microsoft, TRUSTe) are already on board, however. If all goes according to plan, P3P will start appearing in products by the end of the year.

But--and this is a pretty big but--the factors that make the Web profitable (targetability and accountability) aren't going to go away. Once implemented, P3P won't mean squat if Web users aren't aware of how it works. The key: changing the defaults. When software incorporating P3P is available, chances are the default settings will favor corporate profiling. Routine practices such as trading to third parties and tracking and mining an individual's interests may not bring up the pop-up warning.

Considering that only 10 per cent of all Web users are said to ever change their browsers' default settings, this is no small hurdle. Like TRUSTe, P3P runs the risk of alienating those who need privacy protection the most--the un­tech-savvy.

Two basic musts that people need to learn: (1) When P3P arrives, change the defaults. P3P will encourage public interest groups to endorse their own "recommended settings." Users can then go to a trusted source--I'd recommend Electronic Privacy Information Center ( download their recommendations. (2) If there's one thing worse than no data, it's false data. When presented with online marketing surveys and questionnaires, LIE!


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