At the center of this controversy is the personalizing power of the Internet, a power that cuts both ways.
For marketers, tools are emerging that let them build user profiles -- either explicitly via registration or implicitly by watching how a user moves around a Web site -- and deliver customized information to a clearly identified user base.
Dangers in 1:1 marketing
The power of such one-to-one Web content and marketing is obvious. But so are the dangers. Who wants a detailed record of their Web surfing to fall into the wrong hands? Would you?
To head off government intervention, privacy issues are being tackled by the industry on two levels: New technology is being developed to standardize the collection and sharing of personal data, and privacy policing and auditing standards are emerging that ensure Web users their personal data will not be abused or peddled without their consent.
Earlier this summer, Netscape Communications Corp., Firefly Network, VeriSign and 60 other companies endorsed the Open Profiling Standard (OPS) as a proposed standard for collecting and sharing personal information on the Web while ensuring user privacy. Within weeks of the original Netscape-led OPS proposal, rival Microsoft threw its own weight behind the effort, saying that OPS should be submitted to the W3 Consortium as part of that group's wide-reaching Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3) project.
OPS does a few things. It sets up a standard way for users to provide -- and Web sites to store -- personal data for individual users. By creating a standard approach, an individual's profile becomes portable; the repository of personal data can follow users as they move from site to site.
Addressing privacy concerns with technology
To address privacy concerns, OPS adds a mechanism that lets users control Web site access to their personal profiles. Users are notified when a site requests personal data, and they can offer some, all or none of their personal profile to the site.
But a profiling standard is only the first step. The next step is to have some trusted third-party do a privacy audit of your site. A not-for-profit organization, TRUSTe, formally known as eTrust, has emerged to help the industry craft privacy policies.
It's important for the Internet industry to move quickly to support these efforts. The Web is an incredibly powerful medium. But it needs to be an honest one as well.
The key is bringing efforts to collect personal data out into the open. Be honest with users and offer them compelling, personalized content in exchange for personal information. Think twice about reselling their information -- and tell them if you do. It's a small price to pay to keep your users happy -- and the government at bay.
Richard Karpinski is editor at large for CommunicationsWeek and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw-Hill.