At some point, people became convinced that the Internet was a system more anonymous than not. They desire certain services available to them online, but expect that in order to get those services, they will not have to reveal their identities to anyone but the entity providing the service they seek. Predictably, this contingent of internet users feel threatened by the idea that corporations and advertising agencies are monitoring their activities on the internet and storing that data. Rather than take actions to safeguard themselves against this perceived invasion of their privacy, groups are beginning to attack what they probably believe is the source of the problem, the agencies that record "marketing information" about individual users. This is a pointless exercise because, of course, to really protect oneself anywhere, one must understand the nature of one's environment. Depending on an environment you have a limited understanding of to protect you is counter-intelligent.

A timely example of this is recent legal action taken against DoubleClick, an online advertising company. A California woman acting "on behalf of the public" (Anderson, 2000) and several privacy advocates are suing DoubleClick for "unfair and deceptive business practices." (Anderson, 2000) These suits are both futile and naïve. Even if these cases should be decided in favor of the petitioners and a legal precedent thus set, we have already seen how difficult it is for the government to exercise any control over the Internet. Likewise, the government has been unable or unwilling to protect consumers from traditional marketing data repositories, junk-mailers, telemarketers, and so on. Those facts demonstrate something about our society: very few things we do can be done anonymously. Furthermore, as long as it is in the financial best interest of businesses to continue this sort of monitoring and interference, the general public cannot depend on them to respect do not call or do not mail requests, or the next generation, the "opt-out" cookie that Double Click offers to persons who do not want to be included in the DoubleClick/Abacus database (DoubleClick recently merged with Abacus, a company that collects "offline" information such as names, phone numbers, and mailing addresses).

A survey of the privacy policies of online companies by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) conducted this past holiday season found that "not a single one of them (high-traffic websites) fulfilled important elements of Fair Information Practices investigated in the survey. Fair Information Practices serve as basic guidelines for safeguarding personal information. Also alarming was the significant proportion (35 out of 100) of shopping sites that allowed profile-based advertising networks to operate." (EPIC Alert, 2000) The advertising networks EPIC is talking about are of the pre-DoubleClick/Abacus variety. That is, they track an Internet user's movements online, but do not link the data from the online world to another set of data about that person collected offline.

The practice mentioned in the EPIC survey is by no means an uncommon one. Many popular websites require users to accept some sort of cookie in order to get full functionality from the site. And these cookies already record the sort of information EPIC is upset about, mainly which websites a user visits. Companies claim to do this for the benefit of customers. DoubleClick's privacy policy, for instance, claims that data they collect is "used for the purpose of targeting ads and measuring ad effectiveness on behalf of DoubleClick's advertisers and Web publishers who specifically request it." Similar privacy statements may sound non-threatening, but because such agencies are essentially left to monitor themselves with regard to how well they maintain their users' privacy, there are no guarantees. Even if a governing body stepped in to ensure that businesses did meet certain privacy standards, enforcement would be tricky and, except when dealing with larger, more reputable firms, users' personal information would likely be no more secure.

While they may be annoying, the results of these marketing techniques are essentially harmless. As our world is increasingly more connected, we come to function more and more like a small town in terms of privacy; information travels faster, and more people and businesses we interact with virtually "know" us. There are several ways for concerned parties to address this potential problem, but it's important to keep in mind that the worst thing marketers are likely to do to us is spam us into a state of frustration. And if they weren't doing it via the Internet, they'd still be doing it through more traditional media. While things as potentially damaging as our medical records can be freely distributed without penalty, extra junk mail seems like a somewhat petty concern.

Even if you buy into Diane Anderson's (Anderson, 2000) logic when she claims that, with firms recording everything you do online, you could someday be refused custody of your child because you had visited a porn website several years before (apparently profiling cookies have a snowball effect leading to puritanical societies where statutes of limitations are unheard of..), you can protect yourself without having to rely on greedy businesses to do something that means less financial gain for them. By learning more about the technology they are using, everyday Internet users can gain the tools they need to protect themselves from virtually all run-of-the-mill threats to their privacy. There is no compelling reason for people to believe that they should be handed the Internet on a silver platter. While the web may become increasingly "user-friendly," no one should make the assumption that when anyone - evil corporation or curious hobbyist - has access to another plane of understanding, they won't use that knowledge to ends that all users might not agree with.

For better or for worse, the Internet is fueled by capitalism. What was before the sole domain of academics has become an empire of entrepreneurs. Simply translated, that means that greed is everywhere and the average person getting online represents nothing more than a sales opportunity. Instead of waiting for fate or Uncle Sam to come down and protect them from the hordes of businesspeople, users need to educate themselves and in doing so reclaim the anonymity that has become so precious in a networked world.


Anderson, Diane, "The Trouble with DoubleClick". The Industry Standard, January 28, 2000.

Electronic Privacy Information Center, "EPIC Releases Survey of Online Privacy Policies". EPIC Alert, January 12, 2000.

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