I still remember the day I helped my Mother create her very first AOL screen name and email address. It must have been in the mid 1990’s and my family had just gotten the “internet.”

Important to note: by “internet,” I mean a dialup connection at 28.8k speed facilitated by the white and blue America Online CD my mother had picked up at the supermarket.

As we were entering potential screen names (several of which were rejected because they were already taken) – my mom suggested she simply use her name for her email address. Upon that suggestion my teenage brow furrowed. I responded, “Mom – do you really want to put your real name on the internet?”

Thinking back now – it seems silly that we were so hesitant to put any personal information online. In the last 15 years it has now become commonplace for people to purchase goods online, complete bank transactions online, and even keep a running log of where we are located via services like Google Latitude and Foursquare. I suppose the internet is like any technology – we’re cautious with it until we know it’s not going to bite us. I believe soon we will also become comfortable with putting health records online (especially since the current system – keeping health records in a dingy box at your doctor’s office – is mind-bogglingly inefficient).

However, as we put more information online it becomes even more important to establish clear lines over what is public (and can be seen by advertisers) and what is private. There are some no-brainers here, like bank records, but there is a lot of grey area as well – like the content of email messages and browsing history.

In light of the recent FTC inquiry – it seems that we are heading toward a world where users will be able to choose what they share with advertisers. However, assuming that’s where we end up – will it have an impact on the large portion of the internet that is advertiser supported? Will advertisers still be willing to pay the same rates for advertising that is not targeted? Will some sites that run exclusively on advertiser dollars (and have boasted the ability to “hypertarget”) be forced to start charging an annual fee (e.g. Facebook, MySpace)?

Rather than debate one way or another on this issue – the question I have is: at what point do we accommodate privacy concerns and at what point do we simply recognize the nature of the media? After all, no one is forced to use Facebook.

Are privacy advocates enjoying the fruits of an advertising fueled web, while refusing to allow the advertising practices that makes it possible?  Maybe 15 years from now we’ll look back and wonder how we were so silly for being concerned about targeted ads.

Privacy in the Digital Age
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