Information Privacy and The High Cost of Free

This week, we staged a thought-leader event on the topic of Information Privacy at the American Library Association’s annual conference. (Full disclosure) Dan Roth from Wired, Beth Givens from Privacy Clearing House and author/blogger Cory Doctorow took on the issue that every one said was dead. That is, does information privacy matter any more? Or have we become so addicted to free access, free information, and free content–that we are blind to the social costs of life in a completely unregulated information society?

Bloggers Jenny Levine, Jessamyn West and Kate Sheehan were on hand to live blog and pose questions on behalf of their readers.

Panelist remarks that provoked a lot of Tweets, hallway chats, and blog posts included:

Dan Roth took the business angle. He talked about how hard it is to get his fellow journalists to care about information privacy. Roth exposed the superficiality of Chief Privacy Officers. When companies were asked what they do with the private information, privacy officers said they didn’t share any of it. But talk to the people in marketing and 80% of the marketers said they share it. A whopping 30% of marketers said they share user social security numbers.

Hello? Anybody nervous about this?

Beth Givens chided industry leaders like Scott McNeely for flushing people’s privacy rights with geek-machismo remarks (my qualifier, not hers) such as, “There is no such thing as privacy, get over it.” Givens suggested that these attitudes reflect the brash capitalism of the information pioneers. It reminded me of the remarks Henry Ford made in the early days of the automobile industry’s rise. Perfect segue to Cory Doctorow.

Cory Doctorow, author of the bestselling YA novel, Little Brother, is a force of nature. He stepped to the mic sans notes and unleashed an eloquent storm of arguments for why we need privacy regulations now, and how business is likely to resist. Drawing an analogy to the auto industry, Doctorow reminded people that Detroit argued that people would never want their freedom to be hampered by seat belts. Car makers insisted people didn’t want seat belts and wouldn’t use them. As for safety glass windshields, car makers cried foul–safety glass would make cars too expensive. Consumers demand low-cost vehicles, they argued.

It’s true. Consumers like freedom, convenience and most anything that’s free. The Internet has delivered all of that. But the price is that we’ve lost all control of who knows what about us. A few key strokes can make us a prospect over at Doubleclick or a suspect over at Homeland Securities.
Doctorow’s larger point is pivotal. That information industry leaders who insist that no one cares about privacy, keep the information society in a dark age. “You can lay the blame at the feet of the people who’ve established norms where we give up information,” adding that “the systems we build will determine the societies we build,” Doctorow said.

It’s time we as marketers gave a little thought to this. Imagine the uses for the Internet that will go untapped if we don’t establish some privacy boundaries. What if, for instance, the Web where secure enough so that people could vote online?

This is not a matter of having to give up the luxuries we love about the Internet, like being able to shop in our pajamas. As Doctorow remarked, “Privacy needn’t be a hairshirt.” It’s a matter of waking up to the reality that without any sense of privacy or baseline protections for things like your social security number, we are not more empowered.

Consider that while traditional marketers from CPG and durable goods categories are struggling to manage the newly “empowered and opinionated” consumer, companies like Google, Facebook and ISP’s are enjoying the profits of different side of the same consumer–the supplicant who willingly hands over all that can be known about them in exchange for some free technology. In this compact, we compliantly surrender our rights to be curious, discover new things and express ourselves, free from surveillance.

Long term, this business model based on intellectual profiling is dubious, because it erodes trust between the user and institutions, that includes companies. Enlightened marketers will see the fragility of an online business model premised on exploitation of user information and will set and display real standards on their sites. They will seek to become the user’s friend, not Big Brother.

The debate is heating up. In the meantime, our search habits create marketable intellectual profiles over time. Forever archived. These profiles can be compiled handily by employers, creditors, law enforcement, and even potential lovers.

As Dan Roth said, “What you give up at 17 can make you un-datable at 27.”

Photo courtesy of Shoseph at Flickr