Rupert Murdoch once said, "Human beings can be led anywhere, as long you take them there step by step."
Little by little, a vast Alliance of marketing and Internet interests have eaten away our online privacy and anonymity. But recently, these companies have started to hunger for bigger slices of the pie.
A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article (subscription required) noted that Quantcast, a small company that tracks Web browsing behavior on 10 million Web sites, plans to sell that data, which contains detailed user profiles, to marketers who want to create highly targeted ads.
New York Times (NYT) reporter Saul Hansell noted that BT (British Telecom) abandoned a similar plan when privacy advocates objected. In the U.S., Congress stepped in to rebuff AT&T's bid to sell information about its user's Web habits.
Last year, several midsized Internet providers in the United States began testing a similar system with NebuAd, a rival of Phorm. They backed down when a series of congressional hearings highlighted public objections to the concept. AT&T has indicated that it too would like to earn some of the money from targeted advertising now mainly flowing to Google, but it promised to find a way to ask its customers for permission before it does.
But if you really want to visit the frontlines in battle to use personal data for advertising purposes, you have to look at Facebook, as Wired does in this article. Within its Walled Garden of 200 million users, or 20% of the people who surf the Web, lies a treasure trove of personal photos, thoughts, friends and reviews.
Everyone asks how Facebook plans to make money. The answer is the company wants to sell all of the data they have on all its users.
In November 2007, Facebook launched Beacon, a ham-fisted attempt to inject advertising into News Feeds. Users felt violated; after a month of protest, Zuckerberg publicly apologized and effectively shut Beacon down. Then, in February 2009, Facebook quietly changed its terms of service, appearing to give itself perpetual ownership of anything posted on the site, even after members closed their accounts.
The question of who owns the data about us isn't trivial and, like presidential power, it's a spigot that only opens in one direction. Despite all of their beautiful words, presidents don't give back power. Truman didn't, George W. Bush didn't and Obama won't. And once the rights to our personal information no longer belong to us, we are not getting it back, regardless of the recent victories against AT&T, BT and Facebook.
Privacy activists have to win every battle to kept our information from being available to whatever marketer wants to pay the going price. The Alliance of marketers only needs to get the toothpaste out of the tube.
As an interesting aside, both the NY Times and Wired discussed the privacy implications on selling data about our browsing habits. The WSJ, on the other hand, looked at the difficulty inherent in a business plan that gave away the data and would only collect when ads were sold.
Why should we care? For a few dollars, you can get a credit report on almost anyone as long as you have their Social Security Number. And, these days you don't need skills to get almost anyone's Social Security Number.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, but if my credit history is plain for anyone to see, why should I believe that the marketers will do a better job guarding my browsing history? Does a prospective employer or client need to know my political affiliation, religion or fantasy baseball skills?
There was a time when only your family, friends or enemies knew everything about you. That was 20 years ago. What's going to happen in the next 20 years?