Sunday, April 18, 2010

Does Privacy Exist in an Online World?

Last week my car was broken into, and of all places, it happened at church! My passenger side window was in a million pieces all over my car, the cement brick was laying sideways on the floor mat and my GPS was stolen out of my glove box. Beyond the deductible, the money for the new GPS, and the hours of vacuuming glass out of my car, what bothered me the most was the feeling of violation. Knowing that somebody took advantage of me and my belongings by altering them without my permission did not sit well with me. I can only imagine the feeling of violation if somebody broke into my home!

So much of our world today takes place outside of the car and the home and takes place inside the virtual world of the intent. Thieves can steel money and electronics, but internet companies can steal personal interests and ideas. The sad thing is many of us don’t even know its happening and we are expected to be the most tech savvy generation of them all. If we don’t have a grip on what the privacy issues are facing our world today, all other generations are doomed!

Let’s talk cookies. Online cookies are little text files created on your computer that contain information left there by the websites you visit. These cookies help internet advertising agencies to study what website you visit, what you purchase, and what your interest are so they can target their adds to your specific demographic. The tricky part is that users have no idea that this transfer of information is even occurring. The privacy issues become even more serious because most organizations engaging in e-commerce have not yet developed policies and codes of conduct to encourage responsible behavior.

Let’s be clear, I am not blaming all privacy issues on large corporations and I don’t feel that they are all entirely responsible for all of the concerns we face today. Google and facebook are two of the largest names on the internet, and two of the largest names on privacy issues.

Google is barely recovering form their run-ins with democracy in China when they were hit with another charge from Italy’s government. Outrage broke out after a video was posted of an autistic teenager cowering as he was attacked by four boys at a school in Turin, Italy. The judge sentenced the three executives to a six-month suspended sentence and absolved them of defamation charges. Google’s lawyers responded by saying it is impossible to regulate the thousands of hours of footage uploaded every day to sites such as Google Video and YouTube.

Facebook has recently changed their privacy guidelines. Your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friends list, and all the pages you subscribe to are now publicly available information on facebook. This means everyone on the web can see it; it is searchable. Facebook feels that it their obligation to change their privacy standards due to the change in culture. Users are becoming more comfortable sharing more information with more people. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg said, “"We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.”

Both of these cases bring up numerous points of interests but there is only so much time. The problem Google is going to face in increasing measures is that everything is seen as offensive to someone, and we are a point in society that makes you pay for freedom. It is impossible to review all data that is uploaded to these sites, and even if it were possible, there would be no data left because it could be considered offensive to somebody. In my opinion, Google has the money and the man power to bite the bullet when charges are brought against them and they should continue to let the people post!

Facebook’s situation gets to the root of online privacy concerns and the future of web control. Less than two years ago, Zuckerberg was internet privacies number one cheerleader saying, "privacy was the vector around which facebook operates." Is facebook changing to meet the needs of culture? Or is culture forced to change to meet the needs of facebook to control the future of the web?

The more information that becomes public, the more that information can be used by other web companies to do what whatever they want with it. The 350 million people that signed up for facebook did so under the assumption that they have control over the amount of privacy they want to have over their page, those 350 million people are now forced to accept the new terms laid out by facebook. It is easy to see the future generation loosing all sense of what privacy is and the important of it. The other side of the coin says that facebook is not forcing you to post anything, or be friends with anyone. It is the person’s responsibly to judge what information they want to share and what information they want to withhold. Is too much of the blame being put on these companies who only provide a domain for people to express themselves?

The problem with privacy is that it can’t be shared. And if it can’t be shared, it limits expression. And limited expression limits the long tail. Internet users are being targeted to ads in which they have already expressed and interests. All my ads may be focused around the things I already enjoy, not new things in which I may come to enjoy. Of all the possibilities that exist in the long tail, I am exposed to the same T.V. show, the same clothing line, the same make-up products, and the same country music. Privacy and democracy are intertwined in the online world. America's ambassador to Italy, David Throne, condemed the Paris coutroom decision saying that freedom of the internet was vital for democracy.In a statement he said: ''This founding principal of internet freedom is vital for democracies which recognise freedom of expression and is safeguarded by all who take this value to heart.”
There is an unlimited amount of possibilities that exist online and the users of the web-world need to be careful and cautious of their freedoms both to express themselves and protect themselves.

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  1. It's not a private world anymore. I remember long ago I used to hear people say Big Brother is watching you - now it is big brother and his brother and sisters and cousins and in laws - people everywhere are watching - it is most important to at the very least, to take precautions where we can, to make our privacy real.
    You said you can't imagine what it would feel like if your home were broken into. Like you I had my windshield broken out of my Chevy Impala about 30 years ago. It was awful. I felt violated but I did not know what violation felt like until my home was broken into and my jewelry (some from years of collecting and some family heirlooms) were stolen from me. Ouch - oh my heart hurt. I know when I Google my name there are many other women with my name and some live nearby and that is scary. I am very careful now about what I post online because I have two pages of Googles and those are the ones that I know are me. I never thought that posts to blogs in California online would be seen anywhere but there, HA! We have to use precautions for so many reasons - when we post.

  2. You are right, we have no privacy, no matter what we do or where we go. As for facebook, I have thought about getting away from it just for the reason that anyone can search my name and find out, like you said, pages I am part of, my pictures and god knows what else. It is wrong that these companies can take our information and do as they like, how would they feel if we did it to them?

  3. I'm so sorry your car was broken into, I know how bad that stinks. Luckily,I didn't have much in my car at the time except a case full of all my favorite cds!lol. But anyways, i think that was a perfect way to explain online privacy issues, its like someone breaking into your car/ home/ life. I'm glad you brought up cookies. It's something that I didn't quite understand. So, does that mean that if you delete your cookies you can't be targeted? And if so, do you know how to do that?

  4. you can delete your cookies but every single piece of information that you type the website has your IP address. So you can delete it but for that particular website the website just doesn't have your preferences that you asked for, for example, log in information, favorite color or your shopping cart. If you visit that site again it will see the same IP address but will not recognize you. To delete them they are in the tools or preferences somewhere depending on the web browser you are using. My husband is a software engineer so he is pretty useful when it comes to this sort of information :)