Internet Ethics Part 2: Online Privacy and Safety

by on February 24, 2011

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In the first post on this series I explored the relationship between cookies, privacy and the value of content in the context of 2 questions I was recently asked in the forum:

1.    Are you willing to give up your “privacy” in order to have easier-to-use websites?

2.    Are you willing to give up your “privacy” so that the ads you see on websites are likely to be more relevant to you?

Another factor we should consider when discussing cookies and privacy is that there currently does not exist a set definition of privacy. I venture to guess that we all define it differently. Maybe we wouldn’t find as many unique definitions of privacy as there are snowflakes, but I am certain that most of us fall somewhere in the middle between the two extremes endorsed by Facebook’s Zuckerberg on one end, and organizations like the World Privacy Forum on the other. It’s just that the folks on the extremes make the most noise and generate the discourse.

Yes, we should think (but not worry) about privacy. Whether we’re discussing 1st or 3rd party cookies, there’s room for abuse or engage in “gray area” behaviors, like Firesheep the cookie-snatching-plugin and the slippery slope of any PII (personally identifiable information) tracking. That’s why we need watchdog groups like the World Privacy Forum to look out for us. They exist to provide a check on this type of behavior, and lead to the evolution of better, safer technologies and discourage “bad” behavior by unscrupulous players. Those outliers are not well loved by the community. It is not in Internet marketers and corporations’ best interest to invite consumer backlash and government regulation.

What I struggle to understand whenever this debate comes up, is why there seems to be this expectation that the Internet should be any safer than any other environment we are active in? Just as there exist plain old thieves and identity thieves and other dishonest operators in real life (IRL), same thing online. A thief pick pocketed me in a hotel elevator in Detroit, then used my credit card to buy a bunch of stuff and withdrew money from my account. I made things worse because I had my PIN written down on a piece of paper in my wallet. That was a bad mistake on my part, which exposed me to additional harm.

My point is, that just like in real life, it’s up to us to be smart online and take precautions. Practice safe surfing, do not follow random links, stay on reputable (yes, branded) sites and if you venture into the “World Wild Web”, disable cookies in your browser, use a pseudonym and do not give up any personally identifying information (PII). Staying safe online is no different than avoiding going into a neighborhood known for bad lighting and high crime rates in the middle of the night.

Dare I say it? It’s common sense.

For more on the topic of Internet ethics, check out these related posts:

Internet Ethics Part 1: Cookies, Privacy and the Value of Content
Internet Ethics Part 2: Online Privacy and Safety
Internet Ethics Part 3: Black Hat SEO and Regulation

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