Being online is a curious experience. On one hand, it feels totally anonymous, just you and your computer, an obedient object that responds to your every command. On the other hand, almost all your online activity is recorded–every website you visit, every link you click and a whole lot more. For details about how this works, read “Controlling Your Clickstream.”
I’ve blogged about online privacy and how technology is rapidly eroding that increasingly quaint concept. Now the Federal Trade Commission is getting into the act.
Just as Americans can sign up for a Do Not Call list that prevents telemarketers from making pesky dinnertime phone calls, the FTC is proposing Do Not Track, a way to prevent online marketers from collecting personal data about you.
Needless to say, the proposal is controversial. Internet companies claim that this will stymie ecommerce by preventing them from tailoring ads targeted to your interests. There is some logic to this argument. If you’re a guy, you’re probably not interested in seeing ads for women’s fashion accessories. If advertising is the price to be paid for free online content, then the ads should at least be relevant. Fair enough.
But do you really want all of your online activity recorded, sliced, diced, sold and used as a weapon to get you to buy more stuff? I know I don’t.
The other day I was browsing online for a file cabinet. I visited a few sites like Office Depot, Target, Ikea, and Overstock, checking out the options. Then I went to Hotmail. Alongside my e-mail was a banner ad for a file cabinet. It was creepy. I felt like someone was spying on me. I suppose someone was and I didn’t like it. Nor do the 80% of Americans that told Consumer Watchdog they want laws to protect their online privacy.
At this point it’s not clear how Do Not Track would work. One solution is to have a feature built into your web browser–a button or setting–that would block data from being collected and transmitted to third parties, much the way you can now prevent cookies from being stored on your computer.
Yesterday Microsoft announced that it would build a Do Not Track option into Internet Explorer 9. The browser is currently in beta release. (If you’re curious how this will work, read about it here.) It’s a good start.
But what’s really needed is a broad policy that spells out how the personal information collected on every American can be used. Right now it’s a free-for-all, with no clear guidelines. While we may be able to stop personal information from being collected in the future, what about everything that’s already out there? What protection do we have? Very little at the moment.
According to Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, “There are no limits to what types of information can be collected, how long it can be retained, with whom it can be shared and how it can be used. Consumers simply have no legal control over being spied on when they go online.”
Although more action is needed, the FTC is taking a baby step in the right direction. If you’re motivated, the commission is accepting comments from the public until January 21, 2011.
Do you feel like prey being tracked across the online consumer landscape? Share your thoughts on this important issue.
HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is the computer language that made the World Wide Web possible. HTML uses a set of tags that instructs your web browser how to display content on a web page. If you’re really curious, here’s where to learn more about it. HTML4, the current standard in use since 1997, is showing its age. Now under development is the next evolution, HTML5.
You may be wondering why you should care about this. Here’s why:
Let’s say you want to play an online animation. You need a plug-in for your browser, typically Flash. You also need plug-ins if you want to watch a movie or listen to music. HTML5 eliminates this. For instance, by using an <audio> tag, a song plays directly on a web page, no plug-in required. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new capabilities, many of which are still incubating. For a peek at what’s in store, watch the above video that demonstrates an HTML5 prototype for Sports Illustrated Magazine.
But HTML5 has a potential dark side too, one that’s just being discussed.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could run Web applications even when you aren’t online? HTML5 will have that capability. It will cache the application files on your hard drive so you can work offline. Once you go online, it synchronizes and updates the files. The problem is that by allowing Web applications to store data locally, it opens the door to storing tracking software on your computer.
According to a recent article in the New York Times “…advertisers and others could, experts say, see weeks or even months of personal data. That could include a user’s location, time zone, photographs, text from blogs, shopping cart contents, e-mails and a history of the Web pages visited.” Yikes! And unlike cookies, with HTML5, it will be much harder to detect and eliminate the tracking software.
Fortunately, HTML5 is at least a year away. Now that this security issue has come to light, there’s plenty of time to fix it.
As the gateway to the Internet, your web browser is arguably the most important program on your desktop. In the late 1990s there was a heated battled between the Netscape Corporation (makers of the now-defunct Netscape Navigator browser) and Microsoft (makers of Internet Explorer) –the so-called Browser Wars–for global domination. Microsoft won and for years it virtually owned the browser market. Then along came Firefox, Chrome and Safari, eroding IE’s popularity, which now hovers around 60%.
Personally, I find the latest release, IE8, to be very sluggish and prone to frequent crashes. But since almost 70% of Learn the Net’s readers use IE, I tend to use it too, so I can share the same online experience as you do. When I need to do some serious surfing however, I launch Firefox.
Microsoft has taken criticism of its flagship browser to heart. As of yesterday, it’s made a beta of IE 9 publicly available for download. The company hasn’t said when the final version will be released. According to reports, it may not be until early next year.
So far, the word from the technosphere is very positive. IE9 appears to be speedy, stable and sleek, with a new user interface that promises to improve your online experience: less browser so there’s more real estate to view a web page. Here’s a review of the features.
If you enjoy playing with the next new thing, take IE9 for a test drive by downloading it from Microsoft. Bear in mind that it will run only on the Windows 7 operation system. It’s also a beta release, meaning that you may encounter some bugs. Let us know how you like the new browser.