Logic is Variable

an argument starts here

Why Social Media

This article appeared in daily the Nation

In the first place, why do I register at different Websites on the Internet, and you should too? To stay tapped in what is happening in the cyber world and also what is not and to do some more things. Internet users want to access Websites to browse, posts their own random or focused thoughts in weblogs, subscribe to a couple of USENET newsgroups of interest, avail of required services on offer, posts resume on a job or may be bio on matrimonial services sites, shops online or simply use Web based email services. What all users have to do is register and cough up some personal information in the process. Not a big deal!

Big deal is that personal information spread fast on the Internet. Result: email Inbox privacy that is one of today's most sensitive and intricate issues affecting nearly everyone – individuals, businesses and Internet systems alike. Clued-up users who are in know of the matters want to protect their email inboxes though beginners or those who have lots of free time on hand usually do not care until later. Majority of the Websites first ask users to register and give some personally identifiable information including email address so that they can reach out potential customers and people with particular interests. "Over 90 percent Websites ask visitors to register," as per an estimate, for those 'great benefits' -- full use of the Website, membership to certain services or communities, subscription to newsletters and alerts and more.

On the Internet, there are so many novel ways to harvest email addresses and other personal information; sometime automatically without the knowledge or consent of users through cookies (elements of data that a Website can send to browsers, which may then store it on systems. Browsers can be set to receive a cookie, or otherwise), bugs built in some software or other more offensive ways. A report says "the use of concealed bugs to collect information about online visitors has proliferated dramatically in recent years."

Some time it happens that a surfers search for any specific information they need and when click the most probable looking link in the search results, instead of opening the Webpage containing required information, they are confronted with multi step online registration form to complete before they can get onto what they want. But the simplest and 'legal' way to collect information is through voluntary registration. In the process users are required to provide their identity information -- name, street address, telephone number, email, gender, interest areas, birthday, profession and employment status, purchasing capacities and income.

Ilyas Baig, a Pakistani student in America pointed out to an interesting old case on the Internet to prove what length Websites can go to collect personal information: "Those who are using the Internet since late 1990s may remember when a company offered that it will be giving free personal computers to 10,000 people who gave detailed personal information. A question was (and is) that how can a demographic that does not own a computer and presumably is not online, be a target for e-marketing? The answer even then was that savvy surfers will not give personal information online for free computers." But what business could do to know the users? E-marketers zeal to collect personal information is the same if it has not aggravated more.

What do the businesses do with the personal information? "Undifferentiated market segment of today global market is worth next to nothing from marketing point of view. Therefore businesses collect demographic and personal information to prepare their marketing strategies and improve promotional efforts," says marketing expert Dr. Idrees Malik, "that allows businesses to analyze site usage and provide products, services and features that most likely meet targeted segment's demand, and to customize service to make users' online experience as per their expectations and to send marketing or promotional materials through emails and or targeted banners."

Given growing privacy concerns and every one's dislike to unsolicited commercial emails (a.k.a. spam), Websites now give various options on the online registration forms but more often users fail to pay attention to obscure clauses discussing how their personal information including email address will be used. Majority of the Internet users do not read the privacy policies, terms of service and disclaimers of Websites while registering there in a hurry and just proceeded to hit on "I agree" button without going through legal looking lengthy documents. Or users do not pay attention to consequences while opting in or out by checking boxes that authorize the Websites to send emails or worst still share their email addresses with third parties. Sher Zaman says, "this approach means spam me, I asked for it."

Opt-in approach means that users explicitly agree, upfront, to have their personal information used in a specified manner and or share it with others when such use or disclosure to third parties is related to the purpose for which the information was collected. And opt-out is to withhold information from the mass lists; "it is a statement by users that they are not willing to receive sales and marketing communications."

The proclamation like "we will not sell, share, or rent this information to others" is not sufficient. There out to be simple and standard criteria for an opt-out schemes to provide effective protection. This so far is lacking. While writing this, I ‘took the trouble’ of going through Google's terms of use. Part of it reads, "As a condition to using the Service, you agree to the terms of the Gmail Privacy Policy as it may be updated from time to time. Google understands that privacy is important to you. You do, however, agree that Google may monitor, edit or disclose your personal information, including the content of your emails, if required to do so in order to comply with any valid legal process or governmental request (such as a search warrant, subpoena, statute, or court order), or as otherwise provided in these Terms of Use and the Gmail Privacy Policy. Personal information collected by Google may be stored and processed in the United States or any other country in which Google Inc. or its agents maintain facilities. By using Gmail, you consent to any such transfer of information outside of your country." What is more, "As consideration for using the Service, you agree and understand that Google will display ads and other information adjacent to and related to the content of your email."

Some of the sites provide users with the opportunity to alter their registered information so that they no longer receive unwanted email communications. The provisions of changing profile or preferences are usually hard to find particularly for less tech savvy users. Some Internet users who have experienced say that changing preferences have little effect on the amount of commercial emails received, because once an email address is out, there is little anyone can do about it. "I tried changing my email addresses on couple of sites, and now I am getting emails on old as well as new address," says Sher Zaman, a techie. Does this make the Internet a public bulletin board where anything revealed is every one's business?

The users should be careful how and where to register. That is the only choice that remains with the users, I think.

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ 11:21 AM,


At 1:12:00 PM, Anonymous yousuf said...

great article and interesting title


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