Published on March 5th, 2012 | by Meredith Whipple

Information is the Product; Outreach is Our Defense

In the aftermath of Google’s recent announcement of changes to its privacy policy, the media has been abuzz about personal security online. A Wall Street Journal investigative series entitled “What They Know” had the same effect in April 2010 when it reported that the 50 most popular U.S. websites installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology onto visitors’ computers, usually with no warning. Public concern is reasonable and expected; the idea of information secretly being gathered to be used for who knows what is a disturbing thought for many consumers.

But this is nothing new. Google has always been gathering information about its users in order to improve its services through more relevant advertising, better functionality and more accurate search engine results. The information Google collects will not change or increase due to changes to the privacy policy and the company will still not sell users’ personal information. Google will simply consolidate the information it gathers among its services and offer a single, easier-to-understand privacy policy.

Don’t like it? Create different usernames, sign out of your Google account when you use the search engine or watch YouTube, or just stop using a Google account all together. Too inconvenient? You could get your money back – but the service is free. Like it or not, Google is a business – and our information is its product.

The fact is that many websites exist because of ads, so an ad-free internet is impossible. With targeted ads, you see ads more relevant to your life, and websites thrive and continue to remain free to users from the increased ad revenue. If the information companies have about you isn’t accurate, you can usually change it. (You can access and change your Google profile at www.google.com/settings/ads/onweb). If you don’t want to be tracked, you can utilize tracking protection tools. Every browser offers user privacy preferences, including adjusting cookie settings and blocking third-party advertisers. You can even opt-out – all major browsers include a feature that allows users to request that websites do not track them, called “Do Not Track.”

The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) recently agreed to begin respecting these Do Not Track requests, which means that DAA members who don’t comply will be subject to punishment by the FTC. This is a major stride in consumer control of personal privacy – as long as users take advantage of the opportunity. So educate yourself, read privacy policies, decide which websites you do and do not want to accept cookies from and take responsibility to adjust your settings accordingly. Understanding tracking technologies and privacy policies certainly is not as easy as it should be, even for advanced users, but there are plenty of resources online from consumer advocates and the help page of your browser.

The World Wide Web Consortium recently formed a Tracking Protection Working Group, made up of industry members, privacy advocates and academic experts, to form standards for a universal Do Not Track request tool. Even more significant, last week the White House released a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, supporting Do Not Track and calling for comprehensive privacy legislation. However, these changes will likely take years to come to fruition, if they are successful at all. The awareness that these initiatives have brought and will bring to the public may be the greatest impact they have.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold online companies accountable. The White House is calling for greater transparency of how information is used; the ability for users to access and change inaccurate information; and reasonable limits on the personal data that is retained and collected. These goals are fair for both consumers and businesses. Also, government should make concerted efforts to stop personal data from being used to deny people jobs, loans and insurance; this no doubt happens more than any of us realize and many websites sell information solely for this purpose. But as the process toward a privacy framework continues, advocacy organizations, industry members and government agencies that are fighting for online privacy rights need to invest more time into educating consumers and empowering people to take control of their personal security choices.

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