Net Prophet

SAN MATEO (03/27/2000) - The expectation of what's private and what's public sure isn't what it used to be. I know more -- a lot more -- about former Senator Bob and Elizabeth Dole's relationship than I ever really cared to, not to mention Mr. and Mrs. Clinton's. An inevitable consequence of the information age is a change to our notion of privacy. I say it's time to explore the next generation of privacy tools -- tools that will let us turn our personal information into a commodity and sell it in the information economy.

Sparked by DoubleClick Inc.'s merger with Abacus Direct, the debate over Internet privacy is grabbing headlines in magazines such as BusinessWeek and The Industry Standard and garnering national attention.

The privacy debate really boils down to two essentials. First, privacy and convenience are inversely proportional. We trade one for the other. Second, reasonable people recognize there's no right to absolute privacy, and reasonable people will also agree there's some expectation that not everything be public.

Privacy is a balance of competing interests. Where we draw the line is the bone of contention. But "privacy" is a rather mutable concept, and a recent one at that. Privacy was largely articulated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1890. And the "right to privacy" was really only codified by Supreme Court interpretation in the 1960s.

Common wisdom says every Web site needs a privacy policy that spells out how data will be used -- ideally, with an opt-out function for those who don't want to share personal information. I find it ironic, however, here in the Information Age, that we're so bad at transacting in information.

Everyone knows that companies collect personal information because it's a valuable marketing and demographic tool. So if your information has value, why not explicitly exchange it on the open market? Dare I say there might be a Net business in this?

Already we have companies such as AllAdvantage.com trying to make a business out of providing an incentive for you to watch their ads. Why not take this and apply it to demographic and private data? Can't we develop a system to automate the transaction of my personal information in exchange for services?

In reality, this exchange is what's going on right now. You visit a site, which gives you information in exchange for your viewing advertising and their collecting information on how you've used the site.

I think we should just make this business transaction an explicit relationship with levels of opt-in.

Want my name, rank, and serial number? Tell me what I get for it. Let users make the decision as to the value of their information.

Rather than a buried privacy policy, make an up-front privacy transaction system.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is working on a privacy standard that might help. For several years, its members have been hacking out the specification, called the P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences).

Technology standards for privacy have had a tortuous history. Way back in 1997, the W3C completed phase-one work on the P3P. A different standard, the OPS (Open Profiling Standard), came from the tech industry. OPS was rolled into the P3P, which was based on the RDF (Resource Definition Framework).

Then a bombshell was dropped as one of the companies involved in shaping P3P, Intermind, essentially applied for a patent on P3P's technology. So the P3P standard evolved, dropping the RDF and focusing more on XML. The original scope of P3P has been scaled back to essentially providing a mechanism for parsing the privacy policies of a Web site. Define your privacy policy, click on a page, and your browser alerts you if there's discrepancy. Currently the W3C's legal people believe that P3P doesn't infringe on Intermind's patent. In February of this year, the W3C put out a revised draft of P3P, with the last call for comments expected in April 2000.

The P3P is just the starting point, however. The information age will work by different rules, and it's time we reconciled our ideas about privacy to the realities of life in the information economy.

There's no secret here; send e-mail to me at sean_dugan@infoworld.com.

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