Online Privacy and the New Symbol That Says You Have None

Have you seen this symbol?  You will by mid-Summer.  It’s the Power-I icon, and yes, that name is ridiculous.  It leverages the same deceitful euphemism of say ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to create an impression far different from reality.  Say it aloud (“Power-I!”) and you may even feel subtly empowered too, right?

Just look at that little thing.  It’s almost cute, isn’t it?  Cute and blue and entirely innocuous…  So innocuous that you would never imagine its purpose is to alert you when an online advertising message reaches you through the power of behavioral targeting.  This Power-I is the way the advertising industry hopes to stave off further online regulation around this often creepy new technology.

Proponents of behavioral targeting argue that using metadata like your web surfing history and demographic profile helps them bring more relevant ads and that enhances your online experience.  That almost sounds reasonable, until you consider that a full 72% of internet users polled by Vizu in late 2008 rated online advertising as either “Annoying” or “Extremely Annoying.”  And filtering technology allows you to actively avoid them (have you installed Arc90’s Readability yet?).

Proponents of this new icon argue that the Power-I, along with the simple phrase “Why Did I Get This Ad?” that opens a simple explanatory window when clicked, provides an appropriate level of transparency free of obfuscatory legalese.

But the rest of us simply deal with an ever-narrowing popular definition of privacy.  The web’s extraordinary trackability renders anonymity a thing of the past.  Last year, Jeff Zuckerberg made this high-profile pronouncement: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”  He doesn’t speak for me (great commentary on that here), but he wields serious power of the 350 million registered Facebook users, so unless I can find a groundswell of rebellion to join, he probably will speak for me.

Ick.

In the meantime, if I have something private to share with you, look for a letter in your mailbox.  Some private matters merit the delay.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79