The Wall Street Journal, that most iconic of business publications, earns my praise as a definite “good guy” and I wanted to spend some time explaining the amazing work they are doing. They have clearly devoted a huge amount of resources into an extensive and ongoing series called “What They Know.” You can — and should — check it out here.
Here are some of the topics they have covered since the series started in August:
- One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on American consumers.
- Websites are gaining the ability to decide whether you would be a good customer, before you tell them a single thing about yourself.
- Popular children’s websites install more tracking technologies on computers than top websites aimed at adults.
- RapLeaf — which compiles real names and email addresses of Internet users — ranks among the most sophisticated players in the fast-growing business of profiling people online and trading in personal details of their lives.
- One of the most potentially intrusive technologies for profiling and targeting Internet users with ads, “deep packet inspection,” is on the verge of a comeback.
These are issues that we as individuals must be aware of, and our society has to decide whether and where there is a line representing “too much.”
Take the relatively benign issue of targeting advertisements. The WSJ series has shown us the extensive lengths some advertisers will go to serve up relevant, targeted ads. Maybe that is OK — after all, if we are going to have to put up with visual spam, it might as well be something that is potentially of interest.
On the other hand, to target us that well, they have to compile a digital dossier about us. Maybe that is not so good. At a minimum, it seems a bit creepy.
And we can go further. Take insurance companies. It seems reasonable that an auto insurance company can look into our driving record before issuing us a policy. But should they also be able to investigate our lifestyles, such as by tracking the websites that we visit?
I am very impressed that the WSJ would undertake a project like this, which includes several business practices that many would call intrusive. They definitely get my “good guy” award.
Partly as a result of the “good guy” WSJ articles, these issues are starting to be discussed. Recently, for example, the FTC has proposed a Do Not Track list to protect us online, similar to the “Do not call” telephone opt-out lists. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Back to the Future
Here is an interesting thought experiment: jump ahead ten years. How do you feel about the issue of digital privacy? Now jump back ten years. How did you feel then?
I encourage you to think about these answers and share with me any thoughts or concerns you may have.
Check back next Monday for Part 2 of this article to find out who has earned the title of “bad guy” in Internet privacy. While he likely sees himself as a “good guy,” you can decide for yourself after reading the article.