This study matters

In a recent post, I was considering online privacy and data gathering. Today, a study came out on those topics — and the results aren’t good for advertisers or laissez-faire thinkers. But they may enable us to begin re-thinking the promise of the internet.

The New York Times does a nice writeup on the study, including a prominent link to the study [PDF, 411 KB] in the first graph. Way to use the internet. [It’s a shame I have to compliment the paper on that, but most publications don’t use links correctly or even at all, so let’s give props where they’re due.]

The study, conducted by professors from Penn and UC Berkeley, demonstrates what I’ve long believed to be true: People hate being tracked online. It makes them nervous. And they have no idea how the information is used, even when the use of the information is helpful to them.

Note I didn’t say that targeted advertising in particular is helpful. That’s one of the most common uses of personal data today. While targeted advertising does influence purchasing, people still don’t like the idea of it [as this survey demonstrates].

Now, I’m going to say something a little crazy here. Right now, the Internet is dominated by corporate interests. It is a marketing vehicle. Even in places where you believe yourself to be in control of your information, you are likely feeding a corporation’s self-interest. [Facebook, anyone?]

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I continue to believe the Internet is a force for good, on the whole. But I also believe its full promise isn’t even close to being realized.

Doc Searls wrote an important post over the weekend, talking about the promise of the internet, and its current siloed existence. Searls is one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which to me remains the most important book written about the internet. Right now, your information is being used online to help companies make money. Sometimes, that’s also good for you.

When the promise of the internet is realized, you’ll be able to use your personal information to your own advantage, choosing to work with the companies you like. There’s a big difference.