Internet Privacy Should Be Protected

Rutt Bridges



Source Database: Opposing Viewpoints: The Internet

Table of Contents: Further Readings | Source Citation

In the following viewpoint, Rutt Bridges contends that personal data-collecting by Internet merchants should be regulated. According to Bridges, current law allows online merchants to deposit "bugs" or "cookies" on consumers' hard drives that can track customers' movements through cyberspace and obtain personal information about them. In addition, Bridges maintains that online merchants frequently sell the personal data they collect to other companies, which infringes on consumers' right to privacy. Rutt Bridges writes for the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

 

As you read, consider the following questions:



1.        In what specific ways do Web bugs invade a user's privacy, according to Bridges?

2.        According to the author, to whom do merchants sell personal data?

3.        What is one of the fears that users searching for disease-related information might have about personal profiling, in the author's opinion?

Imagine this: As you enter a store, you are greeted by an expert personal shopping assistant. The assistant knows your individual tastes and accompanies you from department to department, answering questions and making helpful suggestions.

It's almost like the old days, when the shopkeeper knew you and treated you as a valued customer!

As you finish making your selections, they are efficiently added to your account. You leave the store, feeling completely satisfied with your shopping experience.

But when you walk away, you notice something odd:

Your personal shopping assistant has slipped out of the store and is discreetly following you down the street. As you step into a drug store to pick up a prescription, the assistant covertly trails behind, jotting notes. You again notice the assistant watching and writing while you browse through the magazine rack.

As you drive away, the assistant notes the make, model and license plate number of your car. Worse still, the shopping assistant has secretly planted a bug that tracks your every movement! Sound incredible? Welcome to the brave new world of the worst of cyber shopping. The Internet's dirty little secret is the "Web bug" and its sometime accomplice, the "surveillance cookie."

Most people surf the Web under the illusion that no one will ever know what they look at. Not true. Some Web sites can secretly deposit Web bugs on your hard disk to record subsequent sites that you visit. Web bugs can also be used to uncover your personally identifiable e-mail address--and then link it to information the Web bug collects about your browsing habits. One unpleasant result can be an avalanche of junk e-mail.

Web bugs can even be used to track on-line newsgroup discussions where people reveal their views about everything from religion to politics.

If this invasion of privacy concerns you, that's tough. Under current law, there's little you can do about it.

In their most effective and obnoxious form, Web bugs work together with cookies, the tiny files that are placed on your hard disk when you visit most Web sites.

Not all cookies are bad. In fact, cookies can be quite beneficial, adapting to your Web browser and your computer's graphics to enhance your Internet experience. Unfortunately, Web browsers can't tell the high-tech cookie equivalent of mom's delicious chewy chocolate chips from Aunt Edna's rhubarb granola surprise.

Most Web browsers let you automatically refuse all cookies. But cookies are so widely used that blocking them severely limits your browsing experience.

Many consumers don't mind (or know, for that matter) when merchants use cookies as an internal mechanism to track what their customers buy, so they can offer related products in a non-intrusive way. But consumers become much less happy when Web sites sell personal data to spammers, junk mailers and telemarketers, or share such information with other Web sites.

At the bottom of Web pages you often find, in tiny letters, the word "privacy." By clicking on this link you can view the merchant's privacy policy.

Be prepared for the legal equivalent of War and Peace. One popular Web site uses no fewer than 2,500 words to explain its privacy policy. As Winston Churchill once observed, "The document, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read."

Privacy statements usually start with a reassuring promise like "We are committed to safeguarding your privacy on-line." Then they often go on to substantially undermine that promise.

For example, the privacy statement might say that the merchant may "provide" (meaning "sell") information it gathers on you to "trusted partners" (i.e., companies whose checks won't bounce). Finally, the merchant often reserves the right to change this policy at any time and without any notice. But that's OK, since many companies don't strictly adhere to their own privacy policies anyway. Late in this year's legislative session, House Minority Leader Ken Gordon joined forces with House Majority Leader Doug Dean to introduce a remarkable Internet privacy bill that would have become the toughest yet for any state. Many industry observers were shocked that this political "odd couple"--Dean is a Republican from Colorado Springs while Gordon is a Denver Democrat--could get together on such an issue.

In a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, lawmakers learned that Internet marketing companies have developed the ability to track the sites you visit and pop up banner ads relating to your specific interests. This can be beneficial when you are shopping for mountain bikes. However, users are less pleased when their interests are more personal. Internet users surfing for disease-related information have real fears that such personal profiling may find its way into insurance databases. In the end, Dean and Gordon agreed to withdraw the bill and give industry a chance to either propose effective self-regulation or help define acceptable legislation. Clearly, however, public pressure to address privacy concerns will only increase between now and the next legislative session.

Gov. Bill Owens' Commission on Science and Technology recently identified Internet privacy as a key policy issue. At the end of the session, the legislature passed HB 1395, sponsored by Rep. Matt Smith, R-Grand Junction, creating a task force to study all aspects of consumer privacy in Colorado. Hopefully an effective plan of action will emerge from this group.

Consumer information has always been a valuable commodity in business. In the old day's, such information was imprisoned in filing cabinets. But the Internet has revolutionized the ease with which personal information can be harvested and the speed at which it can be shared. Today, the information superhighway is a virtual autobahn; data travels fast and freely, sometimes at great risk to consumers.

Reputable businesses understand the consequences they face if they abuse their customers' trust. But, unfortunately, the Internet has its share of renegades.

It's easy to get most people to agree to not rob each other's homes. But without specific and enforceable laws, a few desperados wreak havoc. Without a minimal set of legally enforceable standards, there is no guarantee that e-commerce outlaws won't overwhelm the guys in the white hats. It would seem reasonable to require companies to inform users of their privacy policies, and to comply with them. It would also seem reasonable to outlaw Web bugs. If anyone can demonstrate a reliable self-regulation model, I will be its greatest champion. But if they can't, it is time for government to step in to protect our personal privacy.

Americans are tired of being watched by machines that never sleep--and never forget.

FURTHER READINGS

Books

  • Janet Abbate. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
  • David Brown. Cybertrends: Chaos, Power, and Accountability in the Information Age. New York: Viking, 1997.
  • Andrew Calcutt. White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
  • Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl, and Michael Stack. Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism, and Social Revolution. New York: Verso Books, 1998.
  • Michael L. Dertouzos. What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997.
  • Stephen Doheny-Farina. The Wired Neighborhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • James A. Dorn, ed. Hazy the Internet Will Change the Economy. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1999.
  • Esther Dyson. Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
  • Bill Gates. The Road Ahead. New York: Penguin, 1996.
  • Paul Gilster. Digital Literacy. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.
  • Mike Godwin. Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • David N. Greenfield. Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks, and Those Who Love Them. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1999.
  • Douglas Groothuis. The Soul in Cyberspace. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999.
  • Jon Katz. Media Rants: Postpolitics in the Digital Nation. San Francisco: Hardwired, 1997.
  • Peter Ludlow, ed. High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
  • William J. Mitchell. City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
  • William J. Mitchell. E-Topia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
  • Christos J.P. Moschovitis. History of the Internet: A Chronology, 1843 to the Present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.
  • John Naughton. A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet. New York: Overlook Press, 2000.
  • Charles Platt. Anarchy Online. New York: HarperPrism, 1996.
  • Gregory J.E. Rawlins. Moths to the Flame: The Seduction of Computer Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
  • Jeremy Rifkin. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All Life Is a Paid-For Experience. New York: Putnam, 2000.
  • Gene I. Rochlin. Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Herbert Schiller. Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Andrew L. Shapiro. Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World as We Know It. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.
  • David Shenk. Data Smog. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997.
  • Marc Smith and Peter Kollack, eds. Communities in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Clifford Stoll. High Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian. New York: Anchor Press, 2000.
  • Clifford Stoll. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Anchor Press, 1996.
  • Chris Toulouse and Timothy W. Luke, eds. The Politics of Cyberspace: A New Political Science Reader. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Gary Young, ed. The Internet. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1998.
  • Kimberly S. Young. Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction--And a Winning Strategy for Recovery. John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
  • Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan. Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace. New York: Owl Books, 1997.
  • Patricia M. Wallace The Psychology of the Internet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • David B. Whittle. Cyberspace: The Human Dimension. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997.
  • Jeff Zaleski. The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology Is Changing Our Spiritual Lives. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1998.

Periodicals

  • David Banisar. "Big Browser Is Watching You," Index on Censorship, March 2000.
  • John Perry Barlow. "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," Humanist, May/June 1996.
  • Dennis K. Berman. "Why Napster Is Good News," Business Week, August 7, 2000.
  • Robert Coles. "Safety Lessons for the Internet," New York Times, October 11, 1997.
  • Joseph L. Dionne. "Making Room for Privacy in the Global Village," Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 1997.
  • Michael S. Greve. "Yes, Tax the 'Net" Weekly Standard, May 15, 2000. Available from 1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
  • Stephen Levy. "On the Net, Anything Goes," Newsweek, July 7, 1997.
  • Greg Miller. "Consumer Privacy May Be More Secure Online than Off," Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1999. Available from Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.
  • Daniel Mitchell. "Plan to Tax Internet Sales Would Turn the Constitution Upside Down," Insight, August 21, 2000. Available from 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.
  • Alexandra Samuel and Abby Scher. "Cookies Are Not So Sweet," Dollars and Sense, January/February 2000.
  • Nicholas Thompson. "Harlot's Web," Washington Monthly, November 1999.
  • Lars Ulrich. "It's Our Property," Newsweek, June 5, 2000.



Source Citation: "Internet Privacy Should Be Protected" by Rutt Bridges. The Internet. Helen Cothran, Ed. Opposing Viewpoints® Series. Greenhaven Press, 2002. Reprinted from "Internet's Dirty Little Secret: If You Travel the information Superhighway, You're Probably Being Tailed," by Rutt Bridges, Denver Rocky Mountain News, June 24, 2000, by permission of the Denver Rocky Mountain News.