The Internet brings us great websites full of information and entertainment, and email and chat have revolutionized communication.
But there's a dark side, too, as Internet users are increasingly concerned about how much of their personal information they're giving up in exchange. VOA's Art Chimes reports on the debate over Internet privacy.
As more and more people are realizing, we often reveal a lot of information about ourselves when we go online, information we may not realize we're disclosing, but which advertisers and commercial websites can use to sell us goods and services.
Sometimes the information is openly requested: you register on a website and you fill out a form. Next time you log into the site, you find ads for sporting equipment if you registered as a young man, or maybe cosmetics if you're a woman. Other times, websites and advertisers seem to magically know our interests.
U.S. Internet service provider AOL explains the process with an online animation featuring a penguin who visits a fictional website called AnchovyGourmet. The company's chief privacy officer Jules Polonetsky explains what happens next.
"He's reading about anchovies. You sort-of see him getting this cookie that labels him an anchovy-liker. He then goes to PenguinTimes.com. He wants to know about global warming. He's worried; he's a penguin. Boom! There he gets the anchovy ad. The ad company reads the cookie to display an ad."
Critics, however, point to surveys that indicate web users don't understand privacy policies, even when they are clearly stated.
One reason for that, says privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is that so-called privacy policies often aren't about preserving privacy at all.
The biggest Internet company of them all, Google, has a slogan, "don't be evil," but privacy advocates have criticized some of its policies, such as retaining some identifying information along with your search query. Google recently launched a YouTube channel with short videos explaining privacy policies in plain English.
"To improve our search results, as well as maintain security and prevent fraud, we remember some basic information about searches," explains a Google software engineer in one video. "So what information does Google collect? Let's find out, starting with a simple search...."
Representatives from Google and AOL, plus scholars and critics, gathered in Washington recently for a symposium on Internet privacy. It was sponsored by the communications schools of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California.
Academic researchers are starting to take an interest in Internet privacy. At Northwestern University in Chicago, Dr. Eszter Hargittai has been surveying students about their understanding of key Internet concepts. You would think if anyone would be knowledgeable about the Internet and some of the pitfalls of surfing the web, it would be university students. But that's not what she found.
"Even among young people, there's a lot of lack of understanding," she said. "And age is a predictor of skills, so if you go into older populations it's only going to get worse. But this is already pretty bad, right?"
This is an issue that government regulators are also studying. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, whose members are all Bush appointees, has favored industry self-regulation, which is to say requiring disclosure but not banning the collection of personal data from visitors to websites. That's despite the fact that surveys indicate that Internet users don't want their personal information collected, as FTC commissioner Pamela Harbour acknowledged.
"Consumers are concerned about behavioral advertising even if they do not know the practice by name. Implicitly, we can also conclude that present consumer education efforts are lacking. Policies alone can not cure the overall discomfort that consumers express toward the practice," Harbour said.
The advance of technology is making the collection and analysis of personal information easier for advertisers and commercial websites. The process continues, even though consumers may not know their information is being collected, or that their web activities are being tracked by advertisers.