Web Privacy vs. Web Personalization: Why Not Both?

Posted by Cyberbear on December 3, 2010 in Internet |

Posted By: Cason Schmit

The popularity of the internet has never been greater with over 1.9 billion users. This popularity is due in large part because the Internet rapidly developed into an awesome tool for information, news, and entertainment. The Internet’s rapid development was driven by the potential for efficient and convenient commerce. Commerce on the Internet is driven in substantial part by use of advertisements. It follows that if all advertisements are blocked from appearing in web-browsers, then the current internet economic model would begin to fall apart: commerce would become less efficient leading to less financial incentive for Internet innovation risking stagnation of Internet popularity.
The importance of web advertisements is unfortunate because no one likes ads… Or do they? It might be more accurate to say that no one likes ads for things that are not relevant to them. For example, an 18 year old male may not want to see ads about medication for yeast infections, yet he might rush to the theater to see the trailer for the newest Sci-Fi action movie. Many people do not object and may even look forward to advertisements that are either entertaining or relevant to their interests.
Unfortunately, companies seeking to accurately target advertisements at web users often employ questionable practices. The most common practice employed utilizes cookies. Cookies are small files that track and monitor activity on the web. Advertising firms utilizing cookies can obtain a substantial amount of information about individuals and their preferences to a startling degree of accuracy. Consequently, they can target ads at people who are genuinely interested in the advertised products and services. Although these advertisers do a better job at improving the web experience of users by increasing the relevancy of advertisements, many people are uncomfortable with a company knowing so much information about them and their web behavior. Consequently, there is a growing backlash against web advertisers even though their efforts aim to improve users’ web experience by replacing annoying and irrelevant ads with interesting and relevant ones.
The development of ‘Do Not Track’ is one example of this backlash. ‘Do Not Track’ is a browser add-on that creates an opt-out system for tracking cookies. Although the program is still in production, it theoretically works by adding an electronic message that the user does not wish to be tracked to the header of any data sent or requested using HTTP. Proponents see compliance for ‘Do Not Track’ either being voluntary, self-regulated, or government enforced. While the program seeks to protect privacy, it ultimately will harm the user experience by decreasing the personalization of the web.
But concerns over privacy might be misplaced. In essence, privacy concerns are really only relevant when an individual can be identified. For example, somewhere, someone is picking their nose; people might merely find that fact amusing, that is, until they discover they have been identified as the nose-picker. However, solving the privacy problem is more complicated than simply omitting user names from collected data. Even if a system did not collect identifying information such as names and addresses, mathematically it is possible to identify individuals from the cumulative wealth of the other data collected. Here is the catch-22: greater data collection means better web experience but also a greater chance that an individual can be identified.
But the solution might be simpler than it seems. Because machines do not judge the way people do, privacy concerns might be greatly diminished if tracking systems were entirely automated and prevented human access to consumer information. Like the age old question “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does it make a sound,” it can also be asked “if private information is collected but never seen, is privacy invaded?” However, achieving such a separation of sensitive information from the administrators of targeted advertising systems will probably take more than voluntary action on the part of advertising firms.
The government can significantly ease these problems through proper regulation. If the government bans the practice of collecting user data, then the government risks hurting wed personalization and the user experience. However, if the government merely requires the sequestration of private data then users can get both enhanced web experience as well as privacy protection. A number of options are available to assure this “best of both world solutions.” First, the government could impose restrictions on the type of data that is collected to exclude collection of easy identifying information such as names, addresses, and emails. Second, the government could restrict access to the collected information to prevent the possibility of system administrators from mathematically deducing the identity of an individual. Third, the government could require the encryption of collected data to deter would be cyber criminals from hacking the data by making it unduly cumbersome to obtain useful data if stolen. Conceivably, with government restrictions in place there will be substantial incentive to develop technologies that allow for efficient and safe collection of data such that information cannot be used for anything other providing users with meaningful and personalized web experience.
However, without such protections in place, there are legitimate privacy concerns with the collection and use of this data. Even so, the knee jerk reaction of privacy advocates to end the process of collecting consumer data might actual harm the user experience and could potentially stifle innovation.

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