Privacy, Publishing, and Self Regulation: Electronic Publishers Can Gather Information in Ways Impossible in Print

Article excerpt

If you see the words "privacy" and "Internet" together in one sentence, you often know what follows. Usually it is some diatribe that predicts an Orwellian 1984 type of future. The author may also offer tips on how to "protect your privacy" when online. The funny thing about this is that if you are a publisher, you are the person that the prophets are warning others about--the potential abuser of information power, the data mixer who will take a little bit of data from here and from there and compile a virtual composite of a real life person.

Let us accept one basic premise from the beginning: Publishers want to know who is using their materials. A publisher is in the business of selling access to eyeballs. Advertisers want to know what is attached to those eyeballs. Even a not-for-profit publishing unit will confront the question, Who is reading our stuff?

However, as computers have created more ways to find more information, there is an uneasiness in the publishing community. On the one hand, you may relish the possibility of getting more facts about your readers. On the other hand, you may not be thrilled that you are on those lists as well.

In this month's column, I am going to contrast the way things were and the way things are right now. I will also briefly discuss the Federal Trade Commission's new report on industry self regulation.

Ease of Collection

Finding out information about readers is a challenge in the print world. Publishers have no way of knowing the individual identities of people who purchase a publication at a newsstand. If publishers have a subscription list, they can, with some time and money, cross-reference the list with other lists that offer insights into their readership. Such has been the industry practice long before there was such a thing called the Internet.

Getting information from the Internet still takes some effort, but this is certainly aided by the fact that some people freely offer this information. There are personal home pages that are a marketer's dream. Frankly, I am amazed at what people will freely announce to the world on a Web page. I have always wondered if these same people would so easily disclose the same information to a neighbor or a surveyor.

Trolling the Internet for such information is time consuming. And, as is the case in a free enterprise system, there are already companies engaged in such data collection. But if you are a publisher, what can or should you collect from your Web site?

The Center for Democracy and Technology (http://www.13x.com/cgi-bin/cdt/snoop.pl) has a demonstration site that shows what information can be collected with little bother. Your Internet service provider, the location of the provider, and the browser being used are easily generated. It is also easy to identify how you found that particular page (if you used a search engine) and what topic you were searching for.

This is different information than a typical subscriber list would reveal. In print we would have a person's name and geographical information, which is not provided here. However, a site outfitted with the right equipment could also extract your e-mail address, the files that were used, and other information--far more information than would be easily generated from print.

The Cookie Controversy

Cookies are currently the most popular tracking device being deployed. A cookie is sent by the Web site to your computer where it is stored on your hard drive. If a site requires a password to enter, the site can look for your site-specific password cookie on your hard drive and let you in. This bypasses the need to remember a plethora of passwords.

Typically, you have already had to fill out a survey in order to get a password. Therefore a "mini" file can be created about you that can contain your name, address, phone number, and any other information that was required. …