Last week the Sneak ADtackniks posted a trifecta of online-privacy cautionary tales, including concerns about the nym wars – the argument over pseudonyms on the Internet – and a panel discussion conducted by the Wall Street Journal.

In the course of the latter, Public Parts author Jeff (I Hate Newspapers) Jarvis said this:

If we over-regulate privacy, managing only to the worst case, we could lose sight of the benefits of publicness, the value of sharing.

Our new sharing industry—led by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Foursquare, blogs and new services launched every day—is premised on an innate human desire to connect. These aren’t privacy services. They are social services.

(Check out The New Republic’s knee-capping of Jarvis here.)

Other panelists, not surprisingly, disagreed. From Christopher Soghoian, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, who created the first browser software—called TACO—that blocked online tracking.

Although consumers knowingly share information via Facebook, the privacy issues associated with that company are not related to the way consumers use it, but rather the other things the company does. These include the tricks the company has pulled to expose users’ private data to third-party app developers, the changing privacy defaults for profile data, as well as Facebook’s covert surveillance of your browsing activities on non-Facebook websites, as long as a “Like” button is present (even if you don’t click on it).

The dirty secret of the Web is that the “free” content and services that consumers enjoy come with a hidden price: their own private data. Many of the major online advertising companies are not interested in the data that we knowingly and willingly share. Instead, these parasitic firms covertly track our web-browsing activities, search behavior and geolocation information. Once collected, this mountain of data is analyzed to build digital dossiers on millions of consumers, in some cases identifying us by name, gender, age as well as the medical conditions and political issues we have researched online.

It’s worth reading the entire Journal piece, especially in light of this email from Consumer Reports (via The Missus):

Dear [The Missus]:

Someone is following you around. At least, online they are.

When you go online, you unwittingly give companies lots of information about yourself based on the sites you visit, the searches you run, the movies you watch and more.

Trackers say that online tracking is good because it helps deliver ads that will interest you. That’s fine, if that’s what you choose. But right now, you can’t say “No.”

Tracking software has become so sophisticated that you sometimes can’t even delete the tracking code using the tools built into your browser. Meanwhile, the tools that let you surf the net privately are often hard to use and ineffective.

It’s time to stop the unwanted tracking once and for all!

Although polls show that most of us would prefer more privacy and less tracking, companies that rely on advertising have no incentive to give us the tools we need. And even if they did, no law requires them to abide by our wishes.

That’s why Congress is now considering “Do Not Track” legislation to let us all choose not to be tracked and then enforce our preferences. A bill in the Senate would require companies to abide by your Do Not Track choices, while bi-partisan legislation in the House gives parents control over the tracking of kids’ activities online.

Do-Not-Track is the simple way for you to say ‘no thanks’ to being monitored while you surf the web.

Take a moment right now to show your support for Do-Not-Track legislation in Congress.

Do you know others who may be concerned about their privacy when they go online? Please forward this e-mail to them so they can show their support too.

Sincerely,

Jim Guest
President
Consumer Reports
101 Truman Avenue
Yonkers, NY 10703-1057

Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.


John Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is a media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
John Carroll has 255 post(s) on Sneak Adtack