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.



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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.