The True Price of Privacy: What Users Are Willing to Exchange for (Free) Content

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I Spy With My Little Computerized Eye
After watching one of the clips on Google’s YouTube privacy channel (, I now know that Google collects your query, IP address, the date and time of the search, and a cookie, every time you search. Part of the cookie and the IP address is deleted after 18 months; Google cookies now expire after 2 years, far shorter than the industry standard.

A Google spokesperson, who interestingly asked not to be named, explains the logic behind its collection policy: “Google collects and retains our server logs for three reasons: to improve our search algorithms to the benefit of our users, to defend our systems from malicious access, and to maintain the integrity of our systems, to comply with data retention legal obligations.” I understand that none of this information is truly personal in the sense that no one can connect me with it. Still, it’s a little creepy knowing that someone out there, even if it is a computer, has a record of all my Google searches. In an imperfect analogy, what if the local library used our records to provide us with suggestions for further reading or to make sure people weren’t abusing their library privileges? There would be no room for serendipity, let alone freedom of choice. And once that data exists, it could be used for unforeseen purposes.

What of Google’s other services, the ones you do sign up for, such as Google Web History and Gmail? According to the spokesperson, “In order to be as transparent as possible, we provide strong notice when users sign up for products that may collect personally identifiable information. Ultimately, the decision of what is and is not private, how much or how little information to share with Google lies in the hands of our users.” In other words, in exchange for offering up my email content on Gmail to be used to tailor ads just for me, I get a slew of free and practical email services. Depending on the service, however, my qualms about sharing information I consider more private than email content outweighs the benefits of the proposed service. As Google’s spokesperson so aptly says, “We understand that users have differing comfort levels in terms of sharing information online.” This brings us right back to where we started.

Full Circle
The question to ask then isn’t “What are we willing to exchange for free content,” but “What are we already unwittingly exchanging?” We all fill out surveys, but who among us reads the privacy policies regulating use of our private information? We all use search engines, but do we know what information these companies are collecting, and for what reasons? If we actually took the time to read the privacy policies instead of just clicking the accept button, maybe we’d think twice about bartering personal information for free content. Then again, maybe not. There’s no denying that free content is enticing.

Regardless of your comfort level with sharing personal information online, a little more awareness certainly can’t hurt. Chester believes “we need a legislative approach that ensures each individual can determine what happens with their information and data.” In other words, you should be able to make informed choices as to what you share and with whom. For him, “the gravest concern is that largely out of view of consumers and policy makers, a ubiquitous system for data collection, analysis, and subsequent targeted use has emerged as the principle organizing system for digital communication. Data collection and targeting are occurring now across applications and across platforms.” Big Brother may not be watching you, but a whole lot of other people are certainly busy collecting bits and pieces of you.

Companies Featured in this Article
Center for Digital Democracy
Macrovision Corp.

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