Conversations about life & privacy in the digital age

It’s time to kill ‘online’. And buy clean milk.

As someone who has been ‘online’ since the early 90′s, listening to the emerging conversation around privacy, security, and integrity makes me want to flip a virtual table.

Having managed and built such sexy things as ‘direct marketing and selection systems’ for longer than I care to admit, I can honestly say that the argument against the silent collection of user data as being one that “degrades the experience for the majority of users” (Article link: Yahoo will ignore Do Not Track for IE10 users) is bullshit – pardon my frankness. A more honest description would read somewhere along the lines of ‘we make lots of money selling and distributing user data because it costs us nothing and is worth a lot of money’. (Please don’t sue me!)

So the question remains: why are we still living in a world whereby every time we visit a website the operators are silently – and in some cases without express consent – gathering all sorts of information on our location, previous shopping habits, age, demographic and a slew of other preferences?

To display the vast differences between ‘online’ and everything else, let’s look at two simple examples:

If you walk into Walgreens and buy a pack of gum you have the very visible choice of joining any of at least 2 or 3 savings programs, give money to starving children or just registering for future bonuses. In the physical world this is a very clear and conscious choice that most people (including myself) decline or accept based on our personal preference.

Simple, isn’t it?

However, the virtual world plays by a wholly different set of rules.

Every time you visit a website you are likely to be giving away a number of identifying factors whether you know it or not. And should you happen to actually purchase something, you are leaving yourself at the mercy of the capitalistic virtual demigods. Not only are you giving away your credit card number, address, zip-code, purchase preference, delivery preference and phone number, but very likely a massive amount of aggregate information stored in cookies from other purchases and visits that you have made. So what’s the difference?

In 1995 I would have totally understood this process. The Internet was a vast wasteland, inhabited by porn and pop-ups, and ruled by unscrupulous characters (no need for student loans, thank you very much).

Even in 2000 the Internet was mostly an unregulated territory where spammers could roam free and ‘Adwords’ was an instant success story (again, thank you). But now? What gives ‘online’ the right to work under a different set of rules and regulations then regular ‘IRL’ commerce?

Opt-out by default should be the standard.

Companies (yes – I am looking at you Google, TradeDoubler, Yahoo, etc…) collecting personal information should be on a ‘default is NO’ basis. Not only because this practice is borderline illegal in many cases but – and much more importantly – it undermines the very nature of consumer confidence. Thus, it is time to kill ‘Online’ and start treating ‘online’ the same way we do everyday grocery shopping.

Commerce is commerce.

If you buy something ‘online’ or at your local store you should, as a consumer, be able to expect the same service, rights, privacy, and responsibility as you would in any brick-and-mortar store! Anything less and the the impact will remain consistent – people still thinking of the Internet as a less secure, less private and less safe purchasing option. And THAT is not good for anyone.

So let’s do away with the excuse that ‘online’ somehow differs from ‘IRL’ and just accept that whether you are face-to-face with your local grocer or 5,000 miles away you are still just buying a gallon of milk.


  1. Steve says:

    Nonsense: It's not just online stores that track you without you opting in. Store stores do that too.

  2. Ben says:

    Steve, you are aware that there is a difference between the data Target used – i.e. the name on the credit card the girl used, and what she bought at Target – and using cookies from different sources.

    I'm not happy that stores use these information for more than billing me, but it was my choice not to pay in cash in the first place.

  3. Steve says:

    Ben, isn't the Target version worse? With online places, I am given an option that says directly: don't track me. With store stores it's: I need to use cash here and everywhere to not be tracked.