June 17, 2024

Digital Domain: Opt-In Rules Are a Good Start

Many Web site visitors are willing to share personal information about themselves — provided that their consent is obtained first. Consent cannot be presumed, however. Sneaky is not O.K.

Facebook appeared to figure this out the hard way: it would make unilateral changes that seemed to force users to share more, not less, and then it would look bewildered when many users cried foul.

Now, Apple and Google are learning that their users will not automatically assume that everything the companies do out of view is in their customers’ best interests. A furor erupted after reports that the companies were engaging in secretive location tracking using customers’ iPhone and Android cellphones.

Both companies said they were logging the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers, not keeping tabs on the phones’ owners. But the issue was serious enough that Steve Jobs, the Apple chief executive, emerged from his medical leave to oversee the wording of Apple’s official explanation. The company’s statement blamed “very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a sound bite.”

It’s clear that tracking of any kind is a touchy subject. On the Web, tracking can take the form of “behavioral targeting,” based on the digital bread crumbs that people leave as they go from one site to the next. Or it can involve Web sites paying data brokers for personal information about a Web visitor known only by his or her e-mail address.

A Web site that tracks the actions of its anonymous visitors is peering into the darkness, trying to determine its users’ identities and interests so it can serve up targeted advertising or purchase suggestions.

“Ad networks infer tastes,” says Bret Taylor, Facebook’s chief technology officer. “They make a profile that you can’t edit or delete — and you may not even know about. At Facebook, it’s completely in your control.”

In the normal course of business, Facebook naturally comes into possession of highly detailed personal information on its hundreds of millions of members. Its knowledge of what members are doing online is no longer limited to what is done at its Web site. Members are now offered the option of using their Facebook user name and password to log in at other Web sites, which permits these sites to tap the visitor’s personal and social network information.

Here’s the key: the feature, called Login With Facebook, is opt-in only, and users can opt out any time. If they do revoke their permission, all information that was pulled in from Facebook must be purged.

Facebook forbids partner Web sites from transferring any information about its members to ad networks or data brokers. It also uses technology to detect the attempts of data brokers to “scrape” — that is, record — Facebook members’ publicly visible profiles. (Search engines are permitted to scrape Facebook’s public profiles, but users can elect to disallow that.)

Privacy settings are best managed in one place, not many. For our landline phones, we have the National Do Not Call Registry, at donotcall.gov, maintained by the Federal Trade Commission. But for privacy protection around the Web, there is no equivalent.

Maybe the closest thing we have to such a registry online is the Facebook privacy settings page. It’s true that contemplating the options it offers will make your head hurt — it bears no resemblance to the simple binary toggle of the Do Not Call list. Some people may wonder whether Facebook wants to overwhelm them with privacy options, in the hope that the typical user will simply give up trying to restrict the range of information shared publicly. For those who persevere, however, the system works in the way a Do Not Track list would work: when a member makes changes in his or her privacy settings, the changes propagate to all of Facebook’s partner sites.

In April Senators John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, introduced the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011. It is a strange amalgam of mediocre proposals that would not do much of anything, other than place the onus on individuals to manage their relationship with every Web site that collects information about them, which means just about every site. People who have tons of free time can opt out — but only one Web site at a time.

If a Web site visitor uses an e-mail address as a user name — and shares no other personal information — that site can buy from data brokers a dossier of personal information about the visitor that is matched to the e-mail address. One broker, Rapleaf, says it has information associated with “over 70 percent of active U.S. e-mail addresses” and recently set a new monthly record for itself: responding to more than one billion information requests from its clients.

The opt-out model advocated in the Kerry-McCain bill means that a consumer would have to know about every Rapleaf out there and visit each one to edit information or opt out. It offers the much preferable opt-in design only for a few special categories of “sensitive” information, like medical conditions, health records or religious affiliation.

It was almost 20 years ago that The New Yorker ran its cartoon of a dog in front of a computer, telling another dog sitting nearby, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Without your consent, that’s still as it should be. 

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/business/01digi.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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