Sharing data: are you in control?
Friday, August 16, 2013 — When you surf the Internet, you’re almost inevitably sharing information about yourself with others. Most of the time this is limited to non-personal information like your IP address, or the type of browser or operating system you are using. But you may be sharing more than you know, or want to. Sharing your personal data isn’t necessarily a huge problem. But it can become an issue once you lose control over what happens with your information, or if you don’t really know who gets to access it.
Data is hot. Your personal information, who you are and what you do online, are important assets to publishers and advertisers. But others too, like the government, are interested in your online profile and behavior. The commotion surrounding the American NSA’s practices shows that your online life isn’t as private as you would expect it to be.
Of course there are efforts to control the unbridled flow of data. Different groups, with different motives, try to get a grip on the available data. Some of them out of sheer altruism, some out of economic or strategic interest, some for pure gain.
User initiative and legislation
You, the individual surfer, are the first and most important gatekeeper. You decide the amount of personal information you share on the Internet. There are a lot of different ways to secure and control your data, but not everyone has the means or knowledge to do so. And with some site or online services, you simply don’t have a choice: if you want to visit or use them, you’ll have give away some of your personal information. News sites are a prime example: if you want to read each and every article, you’ll have to log in. In this way, your online freedom is sometimes limited to the amount of information you are willing to share.
The government also takes measures aimed at protecting your privacy. Legislation has its merits, but tends to be a step behind on technological improvement and is often limited by national or continental borders. And since there are no borders on the Internet, a global approach is very much needed to tackle the problem.
User data is a key asset to publishers, since they need it to be able to sell their ad inventory to advertisers. It is crucial for publishers that they can control the way third parties access their data. When a publishers allows a third party (for example Amazon) to publish content or advertisements on their website, they inevitably allow this third party to collect user data. When a user clicks a third party ad, they connect to the third party server, which means this third party can then follow them, even on other sites.
There is legislation about this, but national legislation only goes so far in the online world. American laws for example aren’t as strict as European laws, so American companies tend to care less about user privacy or the way personal data is handled.
A second problem for publishers is that is it difficult to control the content shown on their sites by third parties. It’s possible that, for example, ads for alcohol or tobacco will be shown to minors, and even if this content or ad isn’t the publisher’s, he may still be held responsible for showing it.
The solution isn’t actually that complicated: a standardization of data and information sharing could bring us a long way. Disable possible connections between site visitors and third party servers, by working server side instead of client side. This means site visitors always know who they are sharing their personal data with: the owner of the site. At the same time, publishers have more control over their data, the way they share it and who gets access to it.
Standardization of data exchange isn’t that hard: the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) already offers rules for self-regulation of e.g. behavioural targeting. Doing the same for data sharing is perfectly possible.
Staying in control is key
Sharing personal information online is nothing to be scared of, as long as you know whom you are sharing with and what they will do with your data. A clear standard for data sharing can provide the necessary transparency, thus resulting in better user privacy and more data security for publishers.