Esther Dyson on Internet privacy

Investor, commentator and former head of ICANN says user control is key

Entrepreneur interview by John Shinal
September 22, 2008 | Comments (2)
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/424

As readers of this Web site know, we've been closely following the development of online advertising that's based on user data. 

We've looked at how everyone from Google to upstarts like Medium.com track Internet behavior, and argued that such ad services should be opt in.

So when Esther Dyson stopped by the Vator.tv studio, I got her thoughts on the subject in this video interview.

The tech-industry commentator, thought leader and former head of ICANN is now an investor who has helped back startups  such as Powerset and delicious. In her various roles, she's  been thinking about Internet privacy for more than a decade. 

These days, however, Dyson says we should "stop talking about 'privacy'" because it's not clear exactly what that means. 

She says the key issue is about "giving users control of their data and giving them the means to do that effectively."

According to Dyson,  there should be two basic rules for sites that gather user data: "disclose what you're doing, and don't lie."

With GPS chips providing location-based information on iPhones and other mobile devices and all sorts of companies tracking what Web sites people visit, what comments or articles they write and what products they buy, the amount of online data has exploded.

As the market races ahead, Congress held hearings this summer on privacy this summer and one lawmaker said he may weigh in with a law forcing companies to make ad programs opt-in.

Dyson thinks there should be a "basic law that requires disclosure" but beyond that, Congress should leave it to the market to determine the details.

She also concerned about less-savvy users of the Internet. "I don't think people understand how easy all this information is to find if someone is really trying to," she says.

Dyson also said that consumer Internet behavior has evolved in a way that even visionaries couldn't foresee.

"If you would have said 10 years ago that people are going to be managing data about themselves at a very granular level, people would have said, 'no, this is crazy.'"

Yet that's exactly what users of Facebook's news feed do. The social network is now rolling out its Facebook Connect service, which is an updated, opt-in version of the Beacon data-sharing program that created an uproar a year ago.


Gary Silver
Gary Silver, on September 22, 2008

When George Orwell published Ninteen Eighty-Four in 1949, the fear of surveillance was from the totalitarian state. The political world has changed, corporations became behemoths, technology became pervasive, and today's Orwellian nightmare has evolved to not only fear centralized government with our personal information, but businesses, criminals, and even our neighbors. Big Brother just might turn out to be some creep down the street who knows too much about us. Sure, users must exert caution in the data they put out if they are smart, but society must impose rules on entities to create reasonable limits for data storage and usage that users can not only expect, but rely upon.

Gary Silver
Gary Silver, on September 23, 2008

The problem with allowing the websites with transparent data practices to win in the marketplace as the sole mechanism of control of data privacy is that it is too difficult to predict who will break their own promises, and difficult for individual users to monitor such behavior. Users only find out too late that their trust was misplaced. Users certainly have responsibility in caution, the marketplace will play a roll, but there does need to be some standards to guide expectations and some teeth in the form of penalties from a third party, probably from an independent industry watchdog (like ICANN? - possible loss of domain name provides ultimate global authority and abiity to collect penalties internationally).

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