The Reality of Privacy on the Web

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Article ImageWeb privacy might seem to be an oxymoron, but for businesses and consumers, the implications of getting web privacy wrong are considerably worse than being served a bowl of overcooked jumbo shrimp.

Experts say that no website is free, since consumers pay for the service with their privacy. "That's why the internet is the way it is, because people are more willing to part with their privacy than money. Money means going to work," says Robert Neivert, COO of Private.me, a website that offers private browsing.

Would the ‘Free' Internet Break if Consumers Had More Privacy?

There's an unspoken agreement that consumers and companies enter into millions of times a day: Consumers get free products that they value (Facebook and Twitter), and the companies show them semi-personalized and relevant ads to pay for the service. At first glance, the agreement appears to be working for both parties-otherwise, how could Facebook have 1.4 billion users if users really objected to how the company handles sensitive information?

However, delving deeper shows that both sides may not be satisfied with the arrangement. Survey after survey reveals that Americans value privacy, but feel resigned to not having much (if any) when they venture online. Businesses live in fear of a data breach that would undermine the public's trust in their company and cost them revenue and shareholder value.

So why don't consumers do more to protect their privacy online? Because it's difficult, according to Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for Future of Privacy Forum. "People can control their personal information if they have the time, or the energy, or the resources to do so, but that's asking a lot of them," he says. "As a result, I think, in general, a lot of people feel a little bit overwhelmed when it comes to protecting their privacy."

Even if a majority of consumers decided to lock down their privacy settings tomorrow, today's personalized ads-for-services model wouldn't break, according to Greg Sterling, a contributing editor at Search Engine Land. "Online advertising might be less effective. The profitability of ads might be less because they were less engaging or the money that could be made on them might be less than what we have today. It wouldn't kill things," he says.

Even if consumers were offered paid versions of their favorite programs with assurances that they weren't being tracked, it's not clear how many would choose the paid option, according to Jerome. "Realistically, even if you offered that option, the vast majority of people would not take advantage of it. People are just used to getting this stuff for free. So even if you did change the benefit of the bargain, I don't know how much of a difference it would have outside of the margins. Plus, you'd still have information flowing into these free services anyway," he says.

Private Browsing: One Approach to Web Privacy

There are a plethora of means for web users to protect their privacy: ad blockers for browsers, browser add-ons that block pop-ups, data miners and content widgets, and incognito browsers that don't store cookies and other browsing data.

But that only goes so far in protecting privacy, according to Neivert, whose company is trying to revolutionize the way that private data is handled online. It's approach to privacy is based on the principle that if companies don't have users' data, there is no way it can be hacked or used against them. If users decide to store search results and other data, it is encrypted, split apart, and stored at three nonprofits around the U.S. Private.me says that it doesn't have admin rights to the data, and anyone who wanted the data would have to reassemble it from the various nonprofits.

Private.me has approached several companies, mainly retailers, about handling their private data so they can concentrate on the core business. "That's really our mission-to provide an infrastructure such that large companies can follow privacy regulations and be reasonably respectful of users' privacy and still make money and still do business," Neivert says. The companies using Private.me would be virtually un-hackable, according to Neivert, since the data would be encrypted and geographically distributed at the nonprofits.

Sterling thinks companies such as Private.me are fighting strong headwinds in trying to obtain market share, as users are comfortable using sites such as Google or Bing to search, and it's difficult to fight inertia. "The paradox of the internet is the competition is a click away,  but people are very invested in their existing comfortable, familiar tools and services," he says. "If you know how a service works and you like it, especially if your friends are using it, you have a kind of community of people who are all using the same kinds of things. This is especially true in social media, obviously, so there are few incentives to change."

If the option for truly private browsing and online were available, Neivert thinks there would be a "significant shift" to a product such as Private.me. "But because it's not even there, people just don't even think about it," he says.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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