First there was the Wall Street Journal’s “privacy is the new black” piece in its What They Know series:

Web’s Hot New Commodity: Privacy

As the surreptitious tracking of Internet users becomes more aggressive and widespread, tiny start-ups and technology giants alike are pushing a new product: privacy.

Companies including Microsoft Corp., McAfee Inc.—and even some online-tracking companies themselves—are rolling out new ways to protect users from having their movements monitored online. Some are going further and starting to pay people a commission every time their personal details are used by marketing companies.

Fun facts to know ‘n’ tell about the $26 billion a year online advertising industry (via the Journal):

• In the first nine months of last year, spending on Internet advertising rose nearly 14%, while the overall ad industry only grew about 6%

• Microsoft plans to add a powerful anti-tracking tool to the next version of its Web-browsing software, Internet Explorer 9

• Among the free and paid products to help consumers manage the way companies track their online activities: SafetyWeb, PrivacyChoice, SelectOut

• Among the “data vault” sites that pay a commission to collect and store users’ data: Allow, Azigo, Personal (latter two yet to launch)

• The online-ad industry itself is rolling out new privacy services in hopes of heading off regulation. Most let users opt out of seeing targeted ads, though they generally don’t prevent tracking

Heading off regulation might not be so easy. The Journal piece provides a summary of recent action:

Lawmakers this month introduced two separate privacy bills in Congress, and in December the Obama administration called for an online-privacy “bill of rights.” The Federal Trade Commission is pushing for a do-not-track system inspired by the do-not-call registry that blocks phone calls from telemarketers.

So the Cookies & Milk Data Express is screeching to a halt?

Not so fast.

From AlterNet:

Facebook Will Share Users’ Phone Number, Email and Address with Third Parties

In a move that was announced, and then quietly postponed, back in January, Facebook is again planning to allow third-party applications (folks who write games and applications that use the Facebook interface) to access users’ most personal contact information–including addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. The social networking mega-site would ask users’ explicit permission to do this, as it currently does when users want to tap into these often frivolous third-party apps–and the company is also “considering” an age cap that would prevent teenagers and children from allowing this information to be released.

Privacy advocates point to this as another example of Facebook’s endless two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance with users’ information. Oh, and look who’s cutting in – the digital marketers, who eventually waltz away with more grist for their sales mill.

Critics also see this as part of Facebook’s “ever-expanding push to erode privacy concerns and urge users to share more information.”

From the Journal report to the AlterNet piece: two steps forward, one step back.

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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