Getting Comfortable With Less Privacy

As the Federal Trade Commission examines the Google-DoubleClick merger, privacy advocates are growing vocal about the fear of an unholy alliance. Groups including the Center for Digital Democracy have gone so far as to urge the Commission that "there is simply no consumer privacy issue more pressing" for the FTC to consider than the future of Google.

Enough has been written about whether GoogleClick really will or will not threaten our privacy, so I'll stay on the sidelines of that issue. Instead, I want to raise a related question that, to my mind, remains largely -- and unfortunately -- overlooked. Assuming that GoogleClick is a threat to privacy (for the sake of argument), is it possible that we, as a society, could decide that we're OK with that threat to privacy - as long as we get a better online life in return?

I'd have to say that the answer might be "yes." But before I explain, let me elaborate on the tradeoff I'm describing.



In the advertising world, the perfectly targeted ad channel is pure gold. A channel that allows advertisers to identify and reach the perfect customer can charge a premium for its inventory, because it offers the promise of incredible ROI.

That's always been the premise behind search: keywords help advertisers locate the right customers at the right times, and so advertisers will pay top dollar for them. And it's the same premise, many experts say, that's driving Google's efforts at building up histories of users' activities: the better picture Google can build of a particular user's search behavior, the more targeted Google can make its advertising. And more targeted means more lucrative.

The same thinking holds for Google and DoubleClick. DoubleClick, which has access to user behavior across huge portions of the Internet, could allow Google to create a still more precise picture of its users -- and deliver still more targeted, and more expensive (but also more effective) advertising.

If the assumptions here are correct, then we're looking at an attempt on Google's part to create highly precise profiles of millions of people -- and that's a privacy dilemma. But on the flip side, the more money there is to be made in online services and information, the more incentive the online service providers have to work harder at driving eyeballs toward their ads. To drive those eyeballs, the services need to constantly improve their free offerings (like Google Search). That, in turn, means that the very forces that may be undermining our privacy are the forces that drive stunning advancement in the free Internet, improving our online lives.

And that's the crux of the question our society faces now. Assuming that our privacy fears are real, then how willing are we to trade at least some of our privacy in exchange for a better, free online experience?

To answer that question, it's instructive to look at a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project exploring teens' attitudes towards privacy and social networking. The study found that 23% of American teens "say it would be 'pretty easy' for someone to find out who they are" from their online profiles. It also found that 40% of teens think that "they could eventually be found online."

And so, according to the study, 63% of teens knowingly face privacy risks by living their lives on the Web. But that hasn't stopped teens from living on the Web in droves.

Those numbers could just be another example of the carelessness of teenagers, who risk their online safety for a Facebook page. But I still think this study is highly telling. Teenagers today represent the first generation to have grown up with the Internet, and whatever feelings they have towards online life are unadulterated by an adult's mistrust of new technology. Moreover, teens' attitudes towards new media will become the whole population's attitudes over time -- as they are the early adapters.

And so it says a lot that teens are so ready to trade privacy for the freedom to use the Internet to its fullest, and ultimately how much privacy encroachment -- real or perceived -- the population in general is willing to feel OK with.

How much of the population, teen or otherwise, is willing to trade privacy for a better free Internet? To be honest, I'm really not sure -- simply because there's surprisingly little discussion on how the average consumer feels; studies like the one from Pew are far too rare.

Instead, the national discourse on online privacy pits the media companies against the privacy advocates, without either really taking the pulse of the average Internet user's feelings on any tradeoff. And until we understand what media consumers really want, we'll be leaving them out of a conversation that, presumably, is all about them.

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