Privacy, Piracy and Parental Controls: Where In the World Are We Going in 2012 And Beyond?

It’s that time of year when we look back to reminisce on the past and look forward and attempt to predict what’s coming next.

So here’s a new 2012 challenge for you: Read these three recent (fairly short) news articles regarding online privacy, digital piracy and parental controls in cyberspace. (Yes, I recommend reading the entire articles and not just the excerpts.) Afterward, try and connect the dots. That is, determine how these stories are related. I’ll provide one alternative as an example.

What’s the prize? If you can figure out this maze correctly, you can pretty much predict the future of the Internet for all of us. (And with that crystal ball, easily make a few winning decisions on a long list of related technology topics and products.)

But before you start, be warned that there are conflicting cultural perspectives to consider. We all have biases and blind spots. Remember that the Internet is a global network and that governments and citizens around the world are wrestling with these trends. While these three articles address the US and Europe, the trends apply to cyberspace as a whole. Here are some of the philosophical questions that need to be considered:

1) How important is online privacy to the masses - really? Do actions match words on both industry and personal sides? Would you trade privacy away for various financial or other advantages?

2) How much government intervention is best in cyberspace? Are we headed for (or already in) a global cyber war? Are you a cyber libertarian or seeking more government help and protection online? Are we in the 21st Century’s version of the Cold War?      

3) Do filters equate to protection or censorship? How (and by whom) is “Internet Safety” best implemented? OK, here are the pieces to read:

Article 1: Consumers turn to do-not-track software to maintain privacy

Brief excerpt from USA Today: “Upon reading recent news stories about how Facebook tracks almost everywhere he goes on the Internet, Jim Kress grew outraged.

The consultant from Northville, Mich., subsequently learned Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Adobe and many other companies also exhaustively track his online activities. "I was very unnerved to discover the extent of all the other tracking that was done by nearly every site on the Web," he says.

So Kress, 61, did some homework about a powerful class of online tools and services — most of them free — designed to block online behavioral tracking. He began using a new free service called Do Not Track Plus from Internet privacy start-up Abine….”

Article 2: Facebook and Google Team Up to Fight the E-Parasite Act

Brief excerpt from Yahoo News:

“Just when we thought the battle lines had been drawn on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), tech giants Facebook, Google and Zynga have announced their opposition to the proposed bill.

The companies joined the opposition with a letter to members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives about the Stop Online Piracy Act, also called the E-PARASITE act, CNET reports. While they support the bill's goals of preventing rogue sites from distributing copyrighted materials, the tech giants say the act would ‘undermine the effective mechanism Congress enacted in the Digital Millenium [sic] Copyright ACT (DMCA) to provide a safe harbor for Internet companies that act in good faith to remove infringing content from their sites....’”

Article 3: Apple, Google, Facebook, and others join EU coalition to age-rate the whole internet

Brief excerpt from The Verge:

“Waving the banner of safety is typically a surefire way to rile up political support for restrictive legislation, but instead of introducing legislative mandates, the European Commission has assembled a gang of volunteers including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, RIM, and Nintendo to make the internet more hospitable for children. The coalition of 28 tech giants including mobile manufacturers and operators, OS designers, ISPs, broadcasters, and social networks have agreed to take action in five areas:

  • Reporting tools that flag harmful content and contacts on all devices
  • Age-based privacy settings that hide content
  • Simpler parental controls
  • Removal of content that contains child abuse

Playing Connect the Dots: One example

There are many different ways to sift through these headline tech stories. I recognize that there are conflicting opinions on these matters, but our goal is to look at actual events to see which way the wind is currently blowing. So here’s one way you could connect these dots and point to our virtual future:

· We have witnessed how the tech giants (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc) have tremendous power to influence global governments regarding online matters. They often disagree, but if/when they come together and cut deals on such topics as Internet-wide content ratings and the future of Internet Safety, governments generally go along. They averted EU-mandated legislation with this new coalition. Look for similar deals (to article 3) in the USA and other countries.

· Obviously, the tech giants strongly prefer voluntary frameworks to legislation like SOPA. Look for either compromises that the majority in the tech industry can live with or no legislation to pass in 2012 as partisan politics control the stage.

· In the unlikely chance that legislation does pass (similar to article 2) without the support of the tech giants, get ready for prolonged lawsuits that could take years to resolve, similar to the situation with the Child Online Protection Act.

· In situations where “the market” and public opinion are growing stronger against what the tech giants are doing (and not just saying), such as the growth of do-not-track software (article 1), look for a few things to happen: o The tech giants will keep issuing press releases and offering conference speeches insisting that they are “pro-privacy” (advocates for what their customers really want.) They will point to hot products and services and the growth of social networking, tablets and smartphones to prove their point.

o The large tech companies will continue to insist that users can easily modify privacy settings and opt-out of various tracking mechanisms if they so desire. o These same companies understand that the default settings are the key, since relatively few customers modify profile settings consistently. They will forge ahead in tempting users with new enhanced functionality that requires extensive tracking of online activities by them.o Since big money is coming from targeted online advertising and there are billions of dollars to be made with behavioral tracking, the majority decision has already been made to continue doing what they are doing now. They will justify this by saying that they can offer more value and/or enhance user experiences if they know you better – which is true.o Meanwhile the third-party privacy software market (article 1) will grow until it cannot be ignored. (This is still a few years away). The tech giants will warn that running this new software will prevent users from doing various things (by disabling cookies, etc.)o Stretch prediction - look for tech giants to buy one or more of the start-up privacy companies to “prove” that they are pro-privacy. These functions will be offered as “opt-in” privacy settings to the minority who will apply those settings.

What to Watch?

Here are some key indicators that we’ll need to watch as we move through 2012 and beyond. For each of these three questions, I will list the way that I see the wind blowing – but feel free to disagree.

Key Questions Moving Forward:

       1) More government legislative mandates or private sector voluntary frameworks?

Answer: Voluntary frameworks are still winning – when the tech giants can agree.

       2) What is the default for tracking online behaviors? Will opt-in or opt-out privacy settings be more common in the virtual world?

Answer: Defaults are still set to tracking your actions and minimal privacy. Too much money is being made by sharing your data and profiles with advertisers and others – at least for now. Very few users actually read those multi-page terms of use (consent) statements – most just click “accept” and move on. The vocal minority will grow, but tech giants will watch to see if user actions match pro-privacy words.

       3) Can the technology industry deliver on any privacy and security promises? Do we need to “start over” with more secure offerings for critical infrastructure and services such as Internet banking or online government?

Answer: Better security is a serious matter right now. As significant financial losses mount at banks and online retailers, look for better security controls, ID management and pragmatic near-term changes. In the long run, new security options will emerge for various vertical industries. The pace and depth of change will be determined by scope of breaches going forward.

           Commenting on Facebook and Google Team Up to Fight the E-Parasite Act (article 2), one reader wrote this: “Yeah, just what we need: more clueless politicians ‘inventing’ the internet!”

            My response: clueless or not, politicians or not, tech giants or not, we, the people, are, in fact, reinventing the world-wide web each and every day. There is a global struggle for virtual hearts and minds and actions, meaning how you spend your money and time online. The future of Internet will depend, to a very large extent, on where the masses go regarding online privacy, digital piracy and parental controls in cyberspace.

        In conclusion, I have taken a stab at connecting the dots and given one interpretation of how recent events foretell our future in cyberspace. I believe that these three articles, which address different Internet topics, tell an over-arching cyber story. I’d love to hear your take on how these three issues (or other Internet developments) will come together in the 2012 and beyond.

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