Don’t Belittle User Trust – Regulations Are Just around the Corner

by Mike Wendy on February 23, 2012

CNET Reports today that:

On Thursday the White House and the Federal Trade Communications unveiled the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” which will serve as a policy outline for future legislation and public policy that will work to protect consumers’ privacy while online from a computer or mobile phone.

The administration also worked with online advertising associations, such as the Digital Advertising Alliance and others, to revive “do not track” technology and best practices. This technology will allow consumers to change settings in their browsers to notify advertisers that they do not wish to be tracked as they move from Website to Website online.

I have two quick thoughts on the above:

1. I generally think that voluntary efforts – such as that noted with the industry’s following of “do not track” technology – are more preferable than government intervention to serve Internet users and police marketplace behavior.  Combine these best practices with the evolution of technology, consumer education, reputation management and competition, these tools I think help consumers stay well protected from bad actors.  But for the nonsense of Net Neutrality (which will likely be stuck down by the courts), I think most sides would agree that what has made the Internet so great is the fact that government regulation of the Internet has largely been absent; that the medium has exploded organically, and in “self-controlled” manner, mostly outside the auspices of government control.

Self-regulation, if taken seriously, is a key to keeping government out of our stuff.

2. But, this leads me to the bad actors.  Of late, there’s been a spate of stories revealing that some marketplace participants have taken the issue of Internet privacy to its bleeding edge, seemingly incognizant, or tone deaf, to the real concerns of Internet users. They poo-poo persistent fears that users’ personal information will somehow be exploited or used against them, saying, “Don’t worry. You can trust us.  Here’re some tools to protect your privacy.  Now, go away.”  Yet, the stories about hidden tracking, or super-cookies, or bait-and-switch privacy policies remain an ever-present part of the Internet landscape.

Cutting to the chase, it’s been nearly two decades since Mosaic – the modern web browser – came out.  That’s nearly 12 generations in “Internet time.”   So, let’s face it, the Internet is an “adult” by now.  Companies that are perceived as playing fast-and-loose, nonchalantly or immaturely with personal information should get on their high horses and manage that reputational dissonance, or they should suffer in the marketplace.

“Do no evil” must mean something, right?

Consequently, while I wholeheartedly do not agree with the President’s call for privacy regulations, within the present context, I do not think it unreasonable that he makes it either.

The same companies that pushed Net Neutrality on us because “the Internet is just too important,” shouldn’t be surprised that the same reasoning would come back to bite them on the ass when it comes to privacy.

While some say that the “Internet changes everything,” it does not change the fact that a user’s trust underlies the safe and secure growth of any offering, virtual or real.  This is a fragile thing.  As one big edge provider likes to note (to forestall regulation) – users have choices.  Yes, they do, and they can take their choices and trust elsewhere in a heartbeat.

To this end, if one wants to keep government out of one’s business and keep users happy, then it’s time to start acting like a grown-up.


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