WSJ rolls back privacy and nobody cares. They should

Written on:October 4, 2011
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On Sept. 27, the Wall Street Journal updated its online privacy policy to both read more clearly and to lay out some new, more invasive, practices. The resulting lack of outrage — or even discussion, really — highlights that we have a long way to go to get online privacy where it needs to be.

Somewhat amazing is that the new policy actually grants the WSJ more rights to user data across all its web properties, and yet nobody seems to care. Here’s how the WSJ‘s own Digits blog reported on the change: “The Wall Street Journal revised its website privacy policy … to allow the site to connect personally identifiable information with Web browsing data without user consent.” But other than a handful of articles and blog posts, the story has gone relatively underreported.

I don’t particularly care that the WSJ expanded its data mining reach — it’s the company’s right as long as we treat personal data as property that can be contracted away — but I do care what the lack of discussion says about how we think about online data privacy. If this had been Facebook making a similar move — or, actually, making a much less aggressive move — you couldn’t escape the outcry.

This suggests a narrow and perhaps wrongheaded view about the scope of the issue, about who, what and where are the real privacy threats. Yes, social media usage brings about all sorts of new privacy issues, but sharing information is, to some degree, the purpose of social media. Given that, Facebook is somewhat of an ironic privacy scapegoat while one of the nation’s largest news publishers makes linking personally identifiable information and on-site activity the status quo and there’s seemingly little concern.

Facebook — a young company dedicated to facilitating information-sharing on its relatively new and wholly unnecessary platform — turns up the sharing quotient a bit and there’s outrage. Fair enough. But I’d argue it pales in comparison to a 137-year-old newspaper essentially saying that when you exercise a fundamental component of democracy on its web site by trying to keep informed, it knows who you are, what you’re reading and will use that information to make money unless you explicity tell it not too.

A lack of meaningful consumer choice exacerbates the Journal‘s new policy. Despite its new, impressively frank description of what’s being used and how, the WSJ’s new privacy policy still makes opting out the norm, a procedure that many consumers likely would find too laborious. I don’t want to have to read a site’s privacy policy, bring up a couple third-party sites and then adjust my browser settings just to read the news in relatively private manner. Sure, I could just read the news elsewhere, but that freedom will be of little value if every other reputable news site follow’s the WSJ‘s lead.

It would be great if a “Do-Not-Track” button accompanied a clearly-worded privacy policy. But as I’ve argued before, we need a thorough public discussion of the pros and cons of data-tracking and analysis before we implement anything that gives consumers so much control over how the web does business. Plus, if all we care about is what Facebook and Google are doing with our data, while giving other major sites a free pass, I don’t think we’re there yet.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Robert.Montalvo.

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