Your profile, please

When the giants of Net business say they want to protect your privacy, they're really trying to make you feel comfortable about giving up more information about yourself.

Topics: Privacy,

over the last month, Netscape, Microsoft and a veritable Who’s Who of corporations interested in promoting Internet-based commerce announced their support for what they billed as a major privacy protection scheme — the “Open Profiling Standard,” or OPS. On the surface, the proposal’s goals were estimable: to make online users the ultimate arbiters of how much of their personal information they give out to the rest of the Net.

Cynics immediately noted that the initial announcement came just two weeks before Federal Trade Commission hearings targeting the issue of Net privacy. Clearly, the companies lining up to praise OPS were anxious to avoid government meddling.

No shock there: The desire for online privacy runs directly at odds with one of the most attractive aspects of doing business online — the Net’s capacity for helping target marketing and advertising efforts directly at specific users.

“The Internet is an absolute gold mine,” says Jerry Kang, a law professor at UCLA and online privacy expert. “Private and commercial forces want to exploit database marketing by tracking cyberspace transactions. But individuals just don’t want that. They are worried that their personal information will be misused.”

The Catch-22 is obvious: to truly protect user privacy would negate the Net’s direct-marketing potential. It’s a difficult contradiction to resolve — all the more so when the driving force behind OPS’s ostensible privacy standard turns out to be the Net’s preeminent specialist in commercializing personal information.

Most press coverage of OPS has focused on the fact that arch-enemies Microsoft and Netscape managed to agree on the proposal, making it likely to become a de facto standard. But the nuts and bolts work of designing OPS was carried out by a company called Firefly, an advertising-driven Web site that recommends music and film selections to users by comparing their own preferences to a database of other users’ likes and dislikes. The entire OPS strategy is an extension of Firefly’s current approach to handling its users’ personal information, with the addition of some digital certification tools cooked up by the cryptographic specialists Verisign.



Firefly’s online lineage is ancient, in Web years. It began in 1993, under the name Ringo, as an e-mail-based music recommendation system operated by MIT graduate students. It quickly morphed into HOMER, a Web-based version of Ringo. The graduate students then formed their own company, Agents Inc. (now called Firefly), rounded up some venture capital and broke important new ground as one of the first true experiments in Web-based commerce.

Firefly’s breakthrough innovation was combining its database of user preference information with the possibilities of Web technology to offer advertisers a profoundly interesting opportunity. Advertisers could specify exactly who they wanted to target their ads at — all people who liked techno music, or solo female country artists. Once Firefly combined this information about users’ taste with demographic data — like users’ geographic location or purchasing habits — one could get very specific indeed.

Says Ted Kamionek, Firefly’s director of communications: “If an advertiser comes to us and says, I want to reach males who live in the Midwest who like athletic activities and R.E.M. and want to buy T-shirts, we can manage that relationship.”

Firefly’s executives are fully aware of how sensitive users are to the perception that their personal information might be accessible to pushy advertisers. Kamionek emphasized that advertisers are never given access to individual information, but are merely allowed the opportunity to advertise to “aggregates” of selected groups. Firefly’s internal privacy policies allow users to remain anonymous if they so wish and to expressly decide which categories of information they wish to make public.

In fact, Firefly gets high marks for its privacy policies from privacy watchdogs like the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the online advocacy organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It has also apparently received popular approval from consumers. Kamionek says that Firefly has issued 3 million “passports” — Firefly’s term for the packets of preference data and personal information that it creates for each Firefly visitor. At Firefly, at least, many consumers are willing to make the bargain, to trade their personal info for the Firefly service. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they enjoy doing so — or that Firefly’s attention to privacy concerns is purely altruistic.

Survey after survey has indicated that online users resent being asked for personal information, don’t trust companies that do ask for such information and often — as much as 25 percent of the time — enter false information when prompted for personal details. Firefly has no choice but to address privacy concerns, or its database will become corrupted and useless.

Firefly and all the other corporations that are supporting the OPS proposal are engaged in a tortuous dance. In their view, for commerce to succeed on the Web, advertisers and marketers must be allowed to take advantage of the Web’s capabilities for targeting consumers. But that very act of targeting automatically raises hackles. So at the same time they seek better ways to gather information, they are trying to assuage consumer fears that focus on the abuse of that information.

Since Firefly has been performing this dance longer than almost anyone else on the Web, it made sense that they took the lead in the creation of OPS. Three of Firefly’s core team of programmers, including founder and chief technical officer Max Metral, are listed as authors of the OPS proposal.

“It’s an outgrowth of ideas that we have had for a long time,” said Metral. “The idea is to ensure consumer privacy.”

“At the end of the day we want consumers to feel comfortable,” says Kamionek.

The problem, say privacy advocates, is that the best way to make consumers feel truly comfortable is not to collect information at all, or at the very least, to allow users to determine whether or not information is collected in the first place. But despite all the OPS language about “control” and “consent,” there’s no provision, says one analyst, for taking care of the basic problem of whether or not information should be collected in the first place.

“OPS is good in that it provides for companies to tell you what they are doing,” says Donna Hoffman, professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University and an expert on Net marketing and demographics. “But they are still not really giving you a choice.”

“We should call a spade a spade,” says Hoffman. “These companies have gotten together and standardized the collection of consumer data that can be shared across sites. That is not the same as a proposal to protect privacy. It’s much less concerned with privacy and much more concerned with facilitating the exchange of information about consumers.

“That is a welcome step. We need this standardization. This kind of collection of demographic information is very important. But we should not kid ourselves — this is only half the equation. We still need more protection on the consumer side. To call this a privacy standard is a bit silly.”

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>