As a webmaster one of the issues I am faced with is online privacy. Popular media would have you believe that it needs to be protected, but no one really defines what IT really is. At the most basic level, online privacy means that personal identifiable information must not be logged, stored, or distributed. As a webmaster and owner of a web site, tracking my site’s traffic is very important. A server’s access logs can only track an IP address and some information in regards to the browser that a person used to access the site. Although an IP address can lead back to an ISP, without that ISP’s willing cooperation (and access to their logs), a webmaster cannot really track the actual computer, let alone the person who actually visited their site. An IP address alone narrows down perhaps what ISP was used, but after that, the bread crumbs stop.

Losing Your Privacy

Many sites implement cookies, which allow the site to store and retrieve information from your computer. This information is usually basic login information or in the case of forums, what posts you have read or responded to. Marketing companies love cookies because they can use them to build profiles of what sites you like to visit and what interests you. They use this information to sell you more products and to figure out what party candidate you most likely would vote for. If you think this is invading your privacy, consider your ATM card which not only identifies you personally every time you use it, but can be used to track your whereabouts, based on where you used it last!

Today’s sites no longer ask you to store cookies for them, they simply do it. Most Terms of Service Agreements, (you know those pages you never read on any sites you go to), will always include some sort of consent statement. It usually states that by using services on their site, you are consenting to the site storing or even divulging some of the personal information that they will be tracking. Many sites, even commercial ones, will market out your email address and reward your consent with spam email for months to come.

One-Click eCommerce

Enter the single click web site, which revolutionized internet shopping by allowing site users to click once to purchase an item and not even have to enter any credit card information, because the site already had everything on file for you. Convenience led to massive privacy invasion with your consent of course. A worse case scenario is that perhaps your favorite online store messed up their accounting and charged you less for a purchase, and three months later they decide to correct their mistake and automatically charge your credit card. Of course you could complain and try to save yourself the charges, but all of this requires time, time which costs you too. In the end you have given up significant control for the convenience of one-click shopping.

One Profile Passport

If one-click was not enough, Microsoft (along with other companies) really want to implement a single profile database, where multiple sites can share your account information and implement one-click purchasing across multiple sites. A massive database such as this would not only be able to track more of your purchases, but it would be a goldmine for marketing companies who want to flood your email, your regular mail, and phone with offers. And all you need to do is consent by clicking OK to the agreement and you are in!

Business Versus Consumers

As a business, any marketing information that you can get for free is valuable. The conflict really comes down to the desire of businesses to compete for your business, and your desire to be left alone and remain anonymous. Every time you purchase anything, you relinquish some of your privacy, in order to attain goods or services. In the real world, this does not matter as much, because most of the time you can use your judgment to size up a business, because you are physically looking at a person. I can stand eye to eye with my mechanic and tell by his posture and facial expression if he is being honest with me, but I can’t do that with a web site. Web sites don’t have a tone of voice, don’t sweat, and definitely don’t shake your hand to seal the deal. Consumers are at a disadvantage and companies know this.

Open And Honest Web Sites

Even if site users are at a disadvantage, there are some things that you can check for before willingly giving your business to any site.

Shipping Costs Hidden: If a site will not tell you exactly what your purchase costs to ship before you agree to input your credit card information, then that site is not worth doing business with. eCommerce is about comparison shopping, if you can’t compare total prices, then that site’s owner does not understand the Internet at all.

Physical Address?: Any site that wants your money needs to divulge its physical location of its owners. Good sites not only tell you where their main office is, but where you need to return items to and give you multiple ways to reach them, including a phone number.

Niche Stores: Some online stores will not be very fancy, but if they specialize in something, then their products are usually the best, and they will have plenty of positive reviews from other sites. If they don’t have the best products and there are not any reviews, shop elsewhere.

Emails: The best marketing for any business is a satisfied customer. Great businesses don’t email you or automatically sign you up for annoying newsletters. If they have newsletters they will let you know about them, but leave it up to you to join in the conversation. If you start getting spam email right after you bought something from a new site, then most likely that site sold your email address and does not value you as a customer.

Protecting Your Privacy

In the online world, privacy is really a choice you have to make. It is almost currency itself. If you choose to squander it by signing up on a new site or by getting a great deal on an MP3 player, than that is your choice. You should however use your best judgment before making such decisions and decide if the web site is really valuing you as a client.