Is “Online Privacy” the Ultimate Oxymoron?

Anthony Miyazaki. Online Privacy

Is “Online Privacy” the Ultimate Oxymoron?

The efficiency, global reach, and seemingly limitless information capacity of the internet is what makes it attractive to the great majority of people worldwide.  You can find a pizza place in Hoboken (quite a few of them in fact), the answer to that tough take-home quiz, the schematics of your dishwasher model’s inner workings, and that grade school friend who you were too shy to approach “back in the day.”

But, with all of its benefits, the internet also offers a number of drawbacks that have not gone unnoticed by industry managers, government officials, and consumer advocates.  Ironically, with its ability to make work more efficient, internet usage in businesses has often been blamed for a decrease in productivity.  Although this has been a challenge for industry, a larger issue has been developing over the past decade, that of the internet’s role in the loss of personal privacy.

Personal Privacy Versus Corporate Productivity

One of the most significant benefits of the internet has been its ability to accumulate data at a speed much greater than that of any other communication medium.  From the initial use of email surveys, to website-based requests and provision of personal information, to the current use of click-stream monitoring to understand more specific consumer behavior, the online world has been a boon to market segmentation, target marketing, and now behavioral advertising.  But many have seen this rapid increase in consumer data gathering (with databases doubling every 1.2 years) as an assault on consumer privacy online.  As a result, consumer advocates and government entities have pushed back, even moving industry organizations to take privacy self-regulation more seriously.

We’re Protected, Right?
With all of the discussion of online privacy and legislation such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), many web users may feel that their privacy is protected.  However, many complain that online privacy is at an all-time low.  For example, a Stanford University study found that most websites leak consumers’ personal information to third parties, in spite of claims in their privacy policies that they will refrain from doing so.

Although most web users have the ability to limit some tracking of their behavior, as well as the use of tracked behavior to be used in determining which advertisements they receive, the vast majority of consumers fail to limit their own privacy invasion.  This may be due to a lack of knowledge regarding the ability to limit tracking or perhaps a desire to receive more targeted advertising that is likely to be appealing to that consumer’s interests.  Furthermore, consumers are becoming less and less aware of company privacy policy changes, regardless of how large they may be (see article about Microsoft’s uneventful changes here).

Regardless of the reasons, the substantial number of consumers who have voiced concerns over privacy issues has motivated Congress to consider various protections to allow consumers to opt out of online tracking.  However, the ability of technology to outpace legislation suggests that individual behavior may be the best way to protect one’s privacy.  Currently, most consumers willingly provide vast amounts of information to potential advertisers via website registrations, online purchases, and open discussions on blogs and social networking sites.  Large amounts of information are even provided by children who fall under the protection of COPPA, much to the delight of online businesses that use that data to market a myriad of new products and services.

So the question remains, is “online privacy” even possible, or is the cost of online privacy too much of a burden for consumers, and perhaps even industry, to bear?  Indeed, is it even possible to experience the richness of the online world and still retain one’s privacy?

Perhaps “Online” and “Privacy” may not be a sensible combination after all?

                                                                         Be sensible,
                                                                         Anthony Miyazaki
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A few articles to read…

Bazelon, Emily (2011), “Why Facebook Is After Your Kids,” The New York Times, (October 12), <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/magazine/why-facebook-is-after-your-kids.html>.

Brave, Scott (2012), “Making Sense of Online Personalization and Privacy,” Forbes (October 22), .
Gruenwald, Juliana (2011), “Privacy Groups Hoping Stanford Study Prompts Action,” Nextgov: Technology and the Business of Government, (October 12), <http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20111012_5074.php?oref=topnews>.

Wyatt, Edward and Nick Wingfield (2012), “As Microsoft Shifts Its Privacy Rules, an Uproar Is Absent,” New York Times (October 19).

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