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RealTime IT News

Online Privacy: The Path to Common Ground

Kenneth Corbin

As I tap out a news story about the latest dustup over consumer privacy on the Internet, I find a formula to the reporting.

A public interest group in Washington, D.C., complains that x Web company is trampling over people's privacy rights by engaging in some deceptive practice to pry personal information from an unsuspecting consumer.

Left unchecked, the data harvesters won't stop until they have scraped our innermost desires, ambitions, hopes and fears and laid them bare for all to see. The Death of Privacy. Scary stuff.

Next step is to call the company and get its side. Turns out that the claim is grossly overstated: The data in question is anonymized; it's all clearly stated in the company's privacy policy, and there is no consumer harm.

Plus, targeted advertising makes Web content free, so collecting data is actually good for consumers. Most critically, they say, Web companies will not stay in business if their customers can't trust them, so we can count on them to be responsible custodians of people's data.

So there is the impasse. Inevitably, the reporting yields a lot of "he said, she said," with (hopefully) some analysis peppered in to reconcile the divergent opinions.

But putting them in the same room, letting them really duke it out -- that would make for high drama. Recently, I had a chance to attend what I figured would be such an event, but the fireworks, such as they were, turned out to be a one-sided affair.

The debate at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was hosted by the Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. It featured chief privacy officers at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX) AOL as industry representatives, as well as several academics and the executive directors of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Privacy is a sensitive issue, and the Web companies, fully aware of how important it is to avoid any misstep that could brand them creepy in the public eye, tend to be emphatic about staying on message when talking about privacy, particularly when there are reporters afoot.

So during the panel "Can Privacy Education Help Consumers?" Google's Jane Horvath and AOL's Jules Polonetsky tended to stay above the fray. Horvath, particularly, refused to engage in any kind of debate. Strictly company line.

Next page: Let the debate begin