Privacy Isn’t Dead, It’s Evolving

Recent revelations about Microsoft’s internal debate over Internet Explorer’s handling of tracking cookies, as chronicled by The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, have prompted harsh criticism from self-described privacy groups, who’ve called on Congress to investigate Microsoft’s actions. But as Jim Harper pointed out in an excellent WSJ essay, Web users stand to lose a great deal if online tracking is squelched by the hand of government. Data gathering on the Internet is largely harmless, and individually targeted advertising coexists with robust privacy safeguards.

Over on, my colleague Carolyn Homer discusses these privacy tradeoffs, arguing that Microsoft and other Internet firms have a strong incentive to set privacy defaults that align with their users’ preferences. She points out that most consumers are, in practice, quite willing to live with allegedly “pervasive” tracking in exchange for the enormous benefits that targeted advertising makes possible. While many surveys and polls indicate consumers are very worried about their privacy, the actual decisions that consumers make every day tell a very different story (as documented extensively by Berin Szoka). From Carolyn’s piece:

A body of research reveals a sizable disparity between how much people say they value privacy and how willing they are to actually protect it. In a 2003 Duke Law Journal article, Michael Staten and Fred Cate found that fewer than 10 percent of users exercise their right to opt out and share less. Conversely, if given the opposite choice, fewer than 10 percent of users elect to opt in and share more. The vast middle is apparently indifferent.

If consumers were required to affirmatively opt in before sharing data, the Internet’s prevailing advertising-based business model would be decimated. The effectiveness of online advertising in Europe, for example, fell 65 percent after the European Union in 2002 required a blanket opt-in system. For more than a decade, the Internet has thrived on the assumption that most people believe it is a fair trade to receive free content in exchange for viewing ads. Mere advertisements shouldn’t be equated with gross privacy violations.

She goes on to discuss how privacy settings are evolving as consumer preferences adapt to new technologies and firms experiment with new ways to use and collect data. You can read the rest over at the AOL News website.