A few months back we explained that there were problems with the M. J. Young Net website which meant that certain older articles were sporadically unavailable, and that to remedy that situation those would be reproduced, in serialized format, here at The Examiner, beginning with the index. The first of those, Why Should Cable Television Carriers Pay to Deliver Local Broadcast TV?, ran in five parts ending (and indexed) here, and this is the beginning of the second recovered article. It originally appeared in or prior to 2003.
The original appeared as an introductory and index page with ten separate pages each addressing one of the proposed laws; that format has been retained, but that it is not (yet) possible to link articles not (yet) published, and so the introductory page does not have links. The other articles in the set are being published weekly as a series; they are identified on that index page, Thoughts on the Ten Internet Laws Proposed by C-Net. This is the fourth of the subjects covered; previously we covered C-Net’s Proposed Law: Put Porno In Its Place, C-Net’s Proposed Law: Ban Spam, and C-Net’s Proposed Law: Protect the Freedom to Link.
This page responds to one of the ten recommended laws proposed by C-Net to regulate the Internet.
The problem: On many web sites, visitors are asked to provide personal information; but there is no certainty where such information goes or who gets it. There are few assurances that information you give won’t wind up on a public database for the world to use. Although it is possible to refuse to give out any personal information at all, some web sites will not permit you to view some pages or access some services without giving identifying information–and the surfer is thus faced with the difficult choice of whether to pass up the information or services he seeks, or place his personal information at the mercy of an unknown webmaster.
The proposal: “Any Web publisher that collects personal information from its visitors should have to post a policy stating what data is gathered, how it is used, and whether it will be shared with another party.”
The survey: At the time of my visit, 16,359 “netizens” had voted, with 93% supporting the proposal, against 7% opposing it.
This again looks like a simple common-sense proposal: require that those who ask for information tell you what they’re going to do with it up front. It isn’t saying that they can’t collect information from you, or that they can’t use it in any particular way; those would be bad proposals for the future of the Internet. For example, if you decide to buy something on line, the seller is very likely to want information about you which will enable him to be certain you are a reputable buyer. He might wish to do a credit check, especially if he’s going to accept your personal check. You would want to provide the necessary information so that you can close the deal–but you would not want that information to find its way into a public web page the next week.
It would not do to create laws which limit which information can be requested–our relationships with each other on the web have different needs. We’ve all been asked questions about which we wondered on the relevance: why do they need to know that? But sometimes the information is relevant in ways we will never know, such as defining customer demographics and providing better long-term customer service. No, the Internet is about the transfer of information, and we must tread carefully when we suggest that certain information should not be transferred.
Nor would it be appropriate to limit what collected information can be published. Some of us place information about ourselves in plain view on web pages; others are too paranoid even to have a web page, lest someone should discover in what country we live by tracing our ISP. The question of what you would permit to have published about yourself is one which can be answered only by you, and legislation which forbade the publication of any types of information would be viewed as too restrictive by some, and too permissive by others.
And because of the variety of our natures and our relationships, it would be inappropriate to limit what can be done with the information collected. When you fill out a form with boxes that identify your interests, of course the purpose is to enable the company to target advertising which will be of value to you; if they ask if they can send you “information about products within your interests”, they mean can we sell your information as part of a mailing list. But some of us don’t mind that at all; some of us would like to be moved onto the mailing lists of companies who are going to compete for our business by offering us discounts and deals on the products we use most–and others don’t even post to news groups, because we don’t want anyone to have our e-mail address without our permission. I have one relative who rebuked me for including his name as a carbon recipient on an e-mail sent to several people unknown to him. My address is posted in several places on this web site, and I frequently send it to complete strangers when I compliment their pages.
No, the C-Net proposal is sensible: those who request information should tell us how they will use it. This seems so logical, it may be that we don’t need the legislation. There are plenty of points of “netiquette” which over time we all learn. If we all made it our policy not to provide information to any site requesting it which does not reciprocate with a statement of intended use, web page designers would learn to include such a statement on their request forms. The only legislation which is required would be to create a civil action for invasion of privacy if the information is used in any way not consistent with such a statement–in other words, you should be allowed to sue for damages if you submit information to a site, and it is used in a way you didn’t authorize.
As an aside, although I suspect that C-Net wouldn’t consider your opinion on these laws to be “personal information” (and that’s a rather subjective judgment call itself), I notice that they didn’t choose to mention what, if anything, they intend to do with the survey information after it’s collected.
So, although I’m not sure we need legislation quite as comprehensive as suggested, I voted for it, since the part about requiring the statement is harmless enough, and the important part–creating liability for violation of the terms of such a statement–would flow intrinsically from the creation of that requirement.
This is the fifth article in an eleven part series. Thoughts on the Ten Internet Laws Proposed by C-Net, C-Net’s Proposed Law: Put Porno In Its Place, C-Net’s Proposed Law: Ban Spam, and C-Net’s Proposed Law: Protect the Freedom to Link have already appeared. Still ahead the weekly series will include C-Net’s Proposed Law: Stop Domain Speculators, C-Net’s Proposed Law: Unmask Mystery Webmasters, C-Net’s Proposed Law: Protect Personal Information, C-Net’s Proposed Law: Close Libel Loopholes, C-Net’s Proposed Law: No New Taxes, and C-Net’s Proposed Law: Create a U. N. Net.