Online Privacy – a Nice Dream?

The father of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has told the BBC that he is opposed to web activity tracking – to the point where he will switch ISPs if necessary. His comments were prompted by a debate currently going on in the UK over the plans of several leading ISPs to hook up with Phorm. Phorm is building a new ad network that gets its targeting information by receiving anonymized browsing information direct from the ISPs – something which has caused a good deal of debate over legality and ethics. (You can read Phorm’s FAQ and some additional Q&A to learn more).

While most of us are probably made at least a little queasy by the notion of our browsing data (in whatever form) being tapped at our ISP by an ad company, I have to wonder whether people’s actions in regards to web privacy are consistent with their public stance that privacy is important. We’ve recently had a number of readers weigh in on what they won’t put on the web; security and privacy are the common limiting factors. But lots of people do put information on the web, in a steady stream: everything from blogs to Twitter contribute to this.

And even if you don’t think you’re sharing information, you may well be. A recent New York Times story reports on an analysis performed by comScore which points out, among other things, that just considering Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, AOL, and MySpace people are subject to a third of a trillion “data transmission events” every month. Those are times when a web page sends whatever it knows about the visitor back to the servers, where it can be stored, aggregated, or used to track people’s online habits.

Of course, there are some ways to avoid “The Ever Watchful Eye of Google.” You can relentlessly block cookies in your web browser. You can do all of your surfing through an anonymous proxy network. But how many people even know about these tactics, let alone use them? While Sir Tim certainly has the technical chops to control what leaves his own computer, I suspect that the average user who thinks their privacy is important has already given away the store.

What about you? Do you worry about who has information to your browsing and clicking habits, or who is making connections between information bits you’ve put online? And if so, do you do anything about it?

Related:

Would You Fire Your ISP Over Privacy at GigaOm

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