Online Privacy Issues Not Created Equal

Predictably, a new tracking software program developed by Boston, Massachusetts-based Predictive Networks, Inc. has already been attacked by some privacy advocates.

However, the hue and cry seems premature, as it appears that many Web users are willing to let the company track their every move in return for a lower service rate from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

What’s more, New Jersey-based IDT Corp. just announced that it will use Predictive’s software for its Internet service.

Predictive Will Share Revenue

In an attempt to quickly roll out its tracking software, Predictive plans to share ad revenue with IDT and other ISPs that sign up over the coming months. According to published reports, advertisers are so high on the tracking concept that some have already agreed to pay as much as six times the usual ad rate.

Apparently, some market tests indicated that users clicked on 16 percent of the ads they viewed when using Predictive’s software, as compared to industry data that shows less than a one percent click rate on non-targeted ads.

Still, even though other free ISPs also track and target their customers, some privacy advocates say they are worried that Predictive’s software pushes the envelope to the level of wiretapping.

Also, many privacy advocates believe that users who voluntarily download Predictive’s software in return for free online service will most likely be economically disadvantaged. Therefore, they argue, this socio-economic group is unfairly being coerced into giving up personal information.

A Closer Look

While these advocates probably have the best of intentions, I believe that they have forgotten that users make a conscious choice to utilize Predictive’s software.

By contrast, users were left in the dark when controversial Internet advertising agency DoubleClick chose to link anonymous information to a database of names, addresses and telephone numbers without telling anyone.

While the company insisted that such linkage would only happen with a user’s permission, many critics claimed that permission was gained surreptitiously — and that users were unaware that their personal information was being tracked.

Not surprisingly, DoubleClick’s actions triggered high-profile legal challenges from nearly every quarter, including investigations by the FTC and the State of New York. In another notable case, the State of Michigan issued a notice of intended action to sue DoubleClick for violations of its Consumer Protection Act.

Tarred with the Same Brush

What seems clear to me is that important lines are being blurred in the wake of the DoubleClick fiasco. While I do not expect privacy advocates to ever see a tracking program they like, I believe that Predictive is acting responsibly and should be spared their wrath.

After all, it is still up to each individual to decide how much privacy they need and want, and whether it is a commodity to be traded in the Digital Age.

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