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Who values online privacy anymore?

Who values online privacy anymore?

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Corporations can mine data all they want – so long as it doesn’t affect the user experience.

By Fang Shihan

Photo: JASON / Creative Commons

WHEN Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Christopher Poole of 4chan last thrashed out the ethics of anonymity in cyberspace, the former said “not putting down your real name is tantamount to lying”, while the latter responded “well… people are shy”.

I’m paraphrasing. 4chan is better known as the crazy forum that incubated celebrated ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous and judging by some of the content posted there, it does make sense for some users to stay anonymous.

4chan has 12 million unique visitors per month while Facebook has 500 million users. Facebook, last valued at $89 billion clearly makes truckloads more from advertising revenue due to their more reliable user data.

Of course, both Facebook and 4chan are right in addressing the privacy concerns of their respective users. But the two social media giants are missing out a quickly evolving characteristic of internet users – they don’t care about anonymity or privacy anymore.

Aside from a minority of high profile individuals, most people don’t feel the need to guard their data trail. Partly because they feel that they’re not significant enough to warrant notice and partly because they’re likely to post updates only once every few days and don’t have much of a trail. While public figures like George Yeo or Paris Hilton probably have to worry about stalkers finding their home addresses, the majority of online users are average, less than average, and may even look like this.

Under normal circumstances, no one would bother digging up all the online rubbish left behind by Tan Ah Lian. Unless you’re a victim of overenthusiastic sedition enforcement like Abdul Malik.

Even the ‘dangers’ of behavioral advertising registers hardly a bleep on the minds of internet users. Behavioral advertising selects advertisements for users based on their preferences. It saves advertisers time and money by increasing the probability of their ad having an impact. At the same time, privacy advocacy groups such as this one argue that companies have no right to use users’ surfing patterns for their purposes.

The thrust of the privacy argument now isn’t about the sanctity of privacy per se, but because companies can profit from your data without giving a cent to you. Facebook and Facebook app developers came under fire in October last year for leaking user information. Aside from some minor embarrassment quickly corrected by promises by both companies to protect their user IDs, nothing much came of the incident.

Users really don’t care much about their privacy, or even the fact that companies are profiting from user data, unless of course, they could potentially make a substantial amount by letting companies monitor each click, ‘LOL’ or online search. Data mining requires economies of scale – a database is worth a lot, but a single click is not.

Critics of behavioral advertising also overestimate the impact of online advertising on online users. As I’m writing this while surfing Facebook, there are four ads on the right column – skincare, iphone printer, forex and a dining cashback card. Nothing I’d be upset about and also nothing I’ll pay much attention to. The one and only Facebook ad I ever clicked on was about the NUS Masters program. Again, it’s not something I’d mind lurking around at the side of my screen.

if you’ve been consistently using the same pseudonym for a few years, then you’re not really anonymous either. The only difference between an account profile names Tan Ah Lian, or MissFlower82, is the name.

While privacy may be overrated, online exhibitionism is underrated. The advent of blogging, tweeting and other platforms that enable anyone to communicate to many has created a class of everyday celebrities broadcasting anything from food to fashion to politics. This phenomenon of a one-way communication directed at a following or a two-way dialogue within a community of friends, has made privacy more of an obstacle than a necessity.

People want to be heard. More so for people who seek to find like-minded souls. Subcultures especially, flourish in cyberspace due to the ease of finding someone halfway across the world with almost identical tastes, habits and sense of humor. A private person has few friends online and let’s face it, we all get a kick from seeing the number of unique visitors rise on our blogs.

Then again, privacy advocates may argue that one can blog, tweet and Facebook under a pseudonym to remain anonymous. And it’s true, there’s a large group of online users that do just that. But as with all other consumer-oriented platforms, convenience is key to retaining usage. It’s too difficult to maintain different usernames and passwords all the time.

In any case, if you’ve been consistently using the same pseudonym for a few years, then you’re not really anonymous either. The only difference between an account profile names Tan Ah Lian, or MissFlower82, is the name. Behavioural advertising works on the basis on online habits. Unless you’ve been religiously using a VPN, the ads will get to you too.

Aside from big evil corporations out to bombard your liberty with ads they want you to see, governments have also been accused of infringing onto the privacy rights of online users. While the U.S. is still debating about how the patriot act would infringe on citizens’ civil rights, governments on this side of the globe never had to worry about citizens demanding privacy rights. Don’t like what they say? Throw em’ in jail. Period. The debate about privacy laws is nascent, to say the least.

In such a situation, yes, privacy and anonymity are valued for security reasons. But governments rarely utilize user data except for internal security reasons as well. Furthermore, politically-charged sites pale in comparison with commercial ones in terms of the number of users. This is in no small part due to a lack of advertising revenue for the former.

So while it is unethical to sell user information to advertisers without notifying the user, and it’s somewhat an infringement of privacy when companies monitor user behaviour via targeted advertising; the very painful reality is, none of these sites can survive without advertising.