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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

I subscribe to a newsletter from The Wharton School of the U. of Pennsylvania that covers a wide collection of subjects connected to the business world and what affects commerce. It is not specifically consumer oriented, but it often takes the viewpoint of the individual, as did an article in the Nov. 12, 2007 issue titled, “Who Owns You? Finding a Balance between Online Privacy and Targeted Advertising.” First off, the act of reading is slowly but surely progressing toward the Internet, which may not be bad if we insist on the same quality of content that we do in buying select books. I had a literary agent tell me recently that everything points to the Internet as the new path of communications, adding that it looks bleak for the book publishing business. Even as an avid Internet user, I cannot imagine a world without books, but then, maybe I’m old fashioned. The Wharton piece starts off by talking about the Facebook debacle where the popular website introduced a new program called Beacon, designed to track, among other things, a Facebook user’s web behavior which could be accessed by other Facebook customers. It is beyond me how seemingly intelligent employees at Facebook didn’t hear the alarm bells go off the minute they thought of this, must less after implementing it. The upside is the fact that many of the company’s complaints came from high school and college students, as well as young professionals that said…whoa! Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, thought he had dreamed up a new procedure to share products between users. What he failed to remember was that he should have gotten their permission. And that is basically the root of the problem when it comes to the collection of names and personal data. This was an experiment, as was the Intelius venture into creating a cell phone directory with 90 million cell phone numbers covered in yesterday’s post. Wharton had four very good questions re. this kind of experimentation: 1) Will it continue? 2) Are these incidents just a precursor of what’s to come? 3) Will consumers become hesitant to give up private information? 4) Is there really any privacy online? Joseph Turow, director of the Information and Society Program at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that we are in the era of targeting customers which has created a post privacy stage in consumerism. Do you have any idea what the implications of this are? Data handlers have observed that the general public remains apathetic about the privacy of their names and personal data—the “apathetics” as I call them—so business and government have now moved up to a comfort level that allows them to dig deeper into consumers’ private lives. They want to predict your every move, and, while mostly innocent, this situation holds great promise for unethical business, and a potential gold mine for the identity thieves. My words. It wasn’t until there were a slew of complaints that Facebook changed to an opt-in policy for the Beacon program, with prior permission required before being included. More on the Wharton article in my next post.

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