Privacy is no longer just a regulatory headache. Increasingly, companies with an internet presence are trying to prove to consumers that their data is safe, within their control and will not be misused.
Some established organisations are trying to gain market share by demonstrating that they’re more privacy-friendly than their rivals. For example, Mozilla, suggested recently that it would allow its users to disable third-party tracking software altogether.
At the same time, Web platform companies are setting limits on other organisations with which they do business. Last year, for instance, Apple began requiring applications in its operating system to get permission from users before tracking their location or peering into calendars and contacts stored on an iPhone.
Nonetheless, earlier this year, Microsoft turned on by default, an anti-tracking signal in its latest Internet Explorer browser. Microsoft, also took aim at its rival Google with a marketing campaign that consumers were being “scroogled” with targeted advertisements based on their e-mails and search histories. Google hit back, calling the campaign “intellectually dishonest.”
Increasingly organisations are recognising the need to deal with privacy and are developing privacy protecting services platforms.
These developments signal that the industry is working hard to stave off government regulation, which, in Europe at least, is moving at an increasing pace. While there seems to be little movement in the USA on privacy legislation, It appears likely that the EU will “steam roller” ahead with its proposed introduction of an EU wide Data Privacy Regulation.
While a reform to the privacy legislation on both sides of the pond is well overdue it should be noted that it’s not just privacy advocates and regulators pushing for reform but also people are becoming increasingly concerned about privacy as technology intersects their lives.
With that as a “back drop” it’s disappointing to note that having read drafts of both the proposed European regulation and US privacy bill specific clarification on “Do Not Track” browser settings will remain absent.
This is a concern as currently many advertisers have not stopped tracking just because a consumer sends a Do Not Track signal through his or her browser. The complexities of such technology and browser settings have even meant that Facebook has said it needs more clarity on whether a Do Not Track signal applies, for instance, to social plug-ins like the Facebook “like” button, which is integrated into millions of Web sites.
More enlightened organisations are refining the controls users have over their data, on mobile devices as well as on desktop computers.
Apple for example has, in addition to requiring applications to seek user permission before tracking location, included in its latest mobile operating system a way for users to disable the identification of a particular device for tracking purposes. The Advertising Identifier, as it is called, allows app developers to monitor user behavior, but it also gives consumers the option of turning it off.
Whilst Google sought to distinguish its social networking offering; Google Plus, as privacy-sensitive. Introducing the idea of “circles” as a way to limit sharing certain information with certain people.
As for Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, they ruffled the feathers of the online advertising industry when it announced that it was testing a new tool that blocked third-party tracking software, known as cookies. The company said it had not made a final decision on whether to incorporate the tool into its browser, though some version of it was likely to be included. Alex Fowler, Mozilla’s chief privacy officer, said already nearly 12 percent of desktop users of Firefox and 14 percent of Firefox users on Google’s Android mobile operating system have turned on the Do Not Track signal. “They’re asking for a different level of privacy on your service,” he said. “You have to listen to that. It’s critical to your business.”
In order for organisations to create the perfect environment - balancing customer’s privacy requirements with the needs of advertisers - the question “What does privacy in a virtual world mean?” remains unanswered. The consumers perspective is increasingly that they want to understand what happens to their data and have the ability to control it. The fear for organisations is that this control will result in a total revocation of permissions by the consumer which will ‘stiffle’ the virtual world.
It is this tension that seems to be creating a new industry of privacy start-ups. A host of companies big and small are offering a variety of privacy tools including ways to encode social media posts and ways to secure personal data stored in the cloud. Whether Internet users are ready to pay to protect their personal data is unclear, though surveys have repeatedly pointed to consumer anxiety it is unclear if consumers really understand the question.