Esther Dyson on Internet privacy

John Shinal · September 22, 2008 · Short URL:

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

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 track Internet behavior, and argued that such ad services should be opt in.

So when Esther Dyson stopped by the 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.

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