The Rising Backlash Against Information
Here's a survey for you. It's 10:00 PM on a Thursday evening. You've
just sat down in front of your computer with your mug of Ovaltine and have
decided to surf and shop for a few books and videos on a popular
e-commerce site. During the course of your 45 minute shopping experience,
you research three French cuisine cookbooks but decide not to buy one; you
find and buy a VHS copy of "Gone With The Wind" for your Aunt
Millie; you purchase a DVD copy of "Terminating RamboCop With A
Vengeance, Part VIII," and just for kicks, you surf the self-help
book section and read a blurb about the new book, "Men Are From
Earth, Women Are From Earth. Deal With It."
Three days later, you receive 10 "special offers" in your
e-mail inbox. Four are for Spanish and Italian cookbooks, one is for a
video biography of Clark Gable, three are for new humanity-obliterating
action films on DVD, and the last are messages inviting you to peruse the
section of books helping you improve your waistline, your marriage, your
children, your Feng Shui, your relationship with your mother, your sense
of discipline over your cat, and your ability to openly relate to gardening
Your reaction is:
A) Terrific! It's so nice that this company took the time to figure
out what my interests are and kindly let me know that there are other
products for me to buy!
B) I am never surfing the Internet again! It's as bad as someone
peering into my house with binoculars. Surely this should be illegal.
C) WowI really DO need to get a better grip on my relationship
with my cat.
Most Internet marketers and online retailers would like to believe that
your response is going to be A. If you're like most Netizens, however,
your reaction is likely to be closer to B. (If your response is C, I
recommend you find a hobby and get out of the house more.)
The issue of personal data selling is heating up to become a touchy
topic. The Web surfing public is becoming more and more leery in light of
reports that scores of online organizations keep piles of personal data
about each surfer and sell and trade the information like they would
commodities. What is this information? Where is it stored? Who has access
to it? How is it being used, exactly? Your guess is as good as anyone's.
Think about all the information you've input into Web forms over the
past years. Your name, address, phone number, e-mail addresses, purchases,
and credit card details. Think of the other info that sites have gathered
about you through inference -- your product preferences, the Web sites you
visit, how often you are online, which pages you click onto, how long you
spend on different sites/pages, if you prefer self-help or live help, if
you visit chatrooms. This information is worth its weight in gold to
online marketers and there are endless vehicles employed by these
companies to get more information out of you. Have you ever entered a
contest online? Ordered a free catalog? Filled in a survey? The entire
point behind that exercise was to get you to offer personal information
about yourself and your buying habits.
As I mentioned above, the online marketers would like you to think
they're collecting personal information for your own good and that you
should not opt-out of receiving marketing communiqus in different media.
Online marketing company DoubleClick
tells us they "deliver advertising based on a user's interests if
that user has chosen to receive targeted advertising. We believe that
frequency control, and relevant content makes advertising on the Web less
intrusive by ensuring that users are not bombarded with repeat and
irrelevant ad messages. Opting-out removes our ability both to control
frequency of exposure to individual users and to increase the level of
From the sounds of many of these companies, "opting-out" is
as easy as sneezing. The reality is, every trick in the book has been
employed to make sure you don't find or correctly read the information
that allows you to refuse their collection of your information. Often,
there is a box for you to uncheck in order to opt-out. Just as often, the
box is in four-point type, obscured by logos or is located so far into the
margin you'd need extra-sensory perception to know it was there. Another
trick employed is to word the permission request so muddily you're not
quite sure what you're agreeing to. "Click here if you don't not want
to receive no marketing materials not ever again!"
The battle cry of the players in the online advertising and marketing
industry has always been self-regulation, but it has become clear that
this has worked about as well as asking your average mouse to
self-regulate himself away from the cheddar. The online retailers and
marketers that have honorably made attempts to respect privacy are
understandably getting ticked off that many of their competitors have not.
In some cases, the companies with formerly good privacy practices have
thrown in the towel and decided to collect and share data. (Amazon.com
is a prime example of this, as the company made a controversial decision
Many key e-commerce players are stepping forward to urge the industry
to take a harder stance on the subject. The Global
Business Dialogue on E-Commerce is an organization formed by 72
companies (including America Online and Time Warner in leading roles).
These companies' reasoning is two-pronged. In the first place, they
believe that customers who feel secure about buying online will buy more,
and madly collecting and selling personal information is self-destructive.
(Security concerns are often cited as a primary reason for abandoned
shopping carts.) Second, the GBDE believes that if the industry doesn't
regulate itself, the Federal Government will, and enforced legislation is
bound to be much harsher than what companies would impose on themselves.
(For example, while many companies support a mandatory opt-out function,
which allows consumers to take the initiative to disallow collection of
their personal data, few companies would support a government-favored
opt-in function, which means the companies can only trade data on those
consumers who give specific permission to do so. E-tailers very correctly
deduce that few consumers would choose to opt-in.)
Legislation to take the place of failed attempts at self-regulation is
a very real specter on the horizon. There are already attempts in Congress
to formulate laws against many of the more privacy-invading practices. Senator
John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator
John Kerry (D-MA) have drafted The Consumer Privacy Enforcement Act, a
bill dictating that Web sites must clearly make their privacy policies
available for visitors and must offer visitors the choice to opt-out of
having their data collected. This bill is still a long way away from
approval, but just the fact that the issue is on Congress's desktop is
The public's response has been just as telling. The rise of popular
sites such as SpamCop and Junk
Busters is sending a message to marketers and legislators alike that
the rampant misuse of personal information is putting a decided crimp on
the expansion of e-commerce.
Unless you're willing to give up shopping, researching and surfing
entirely, it's hard to protect yourself and your personal data. If you're
not willing to go to such an extreme, I recommend being careful about what
information you're giving to whom. The organizers of an online survey do
not need your home address. If they want it, skip the survey. When you buy
a book online, the e-tailer does not need to know the ages of your
children. Go elsewhere. No one online needs your social security number.
Be aware that every time you give someone your e-mail address, there
SHOULD be a box for you to uncheck to chose not to have spam sent to youunless
you really have a burning desire to know how you can make your cat happier
using Feng Shui.
Send e-mail to email@example.com
if you'd like to maybe not make sure you don't miss not communicating with