Monday, July 28, 1997

Week of 07/28/1997

Online Privacy
AOL, online services baiting government to act
- by David Matthews 2

This past week (7/24) the Wall Street Journal announced that America Online was prepared to sell out its 8 million subscribers to telemarketers. They would provide these telemarketers with the names, addresses, phone numbers, and online preferences for them to use at their discretion. The reaction was predictable. Online users began canceling their subscription to AOL. AOL stock dropped like a stone. And Steve Case was forced to backpedal on this so-called "member benefit." At least he backed off and said that the telemarketers wouldn’t call the members, but AOL employees would still call on behalf of the telemarketers.

For starters, the move by Chairman Case was contrary to everything AOL has represented. They said that the privacy of AOL members was assured. And now that is for all intents and purposes gone. Deleted much like the semi-nude glamour pics they used to have. Worse yet, he and the "TOS GODS" have the utter gall to refer to the move as a "member benefit." Yeah, that’s as much of a benefit as calling a prostrate probe a "pleasurable experience." (Trust me, if you don’t already know the mechanics involved in that procedure, YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW!)

By the way Steve, let me put this to you in terms you can understand: telemarketers are PHONE SPAM! You are trying to sell the names and phone numbers of all your customers, including myself, to people who SPAM on the telephone instead of a modem or fax machine! Is that getting through to you?

Look, we know there’s no such thing as online privacy anymore. You don’t believe me? Go to Yahoo’s White Pages and do a search for your name. It’ll have your name, address, and phone number on there. You wonder why the guy you flamed or had a flaming hot cyber-chat with just showed up at your doorstop? That’s how! And that’s not including the number of cookies that appear on your browser. I’ve encountered so many sites that have cookies that I have to turn the sound off when I go browsing because it sets off my cookie-notification window in Netscape! The only places where I surf that I allow cookies to be put in my system are the sites I’m familiar with. By the way, if you have set your browser to alert you for cookies, you might want to see what kind of cookies they are putting into your system. On a few of them I caught my own POP number! Folks, that’s the equivalent of walking into a mall and shouting your name and address to the crowd. You know I didn’t allow that to happen in a site I wasn’t familiar with!

All of this is leading to one inevitable conclusion: forget Big Brother, now we have electronic peeping toms wanting to look into our lives and know what we’re doing online.

And guess what? These Little Brothers are tempting Big Brother - government - into action!

As a rule, government hates not having rules. They feel everything in their line of vision needs to be compartmentalized and structured into laws and regulations and general orders that they can control and modify to suit their needs. So you can imagine their reaction to an entity like the Internet existing without such structured controls and their growing inability to control it. This used to be their creation! And now they’re getting their hands slapped by the Supreme Court when it comes to controlling information.

There are two basic ways government is spurned to action. The first is when their special interest masters (the ones paying their re-election campaigns) tell them it’s an issue. That’s how the Communications Decency Act and the various bills about encryption technology were created. The second is when there is a case of blatant abuse that needs to be corrected. That’s how the spam bills were created, and now how information is being gathered about computer users.

The Federal Trade Commission recently left warnings to companies that gather such information not to do so about children who use the Internet. Congress has currently a couple of bills designed to protect computer users from intrusive information collectors and the businesses that use that information. No doubt one of them will get passed. The issue is too great and the level of intrusion is too heavy not too.

To be honest, I don’t know where I should stand on this issue. As much as I abhor the government getting involved, this is one of those rare instances where the members of Congress ARE doing their jobs, namely protecting individuals from intrusive entities. And as long as the laws are written as such and not laden with other needless amendments (fat chance) this is a law that will be praised by the cyber-community. Grudgingly, but praised nonetheless.

Steve Case and his ilk haven’t gotten the message yet. These measures wouldn’t have existed if corporations decided early on to limit themselves. After all, who do they think they are? The Clinton Administration?

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