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branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
[personal profile] branchandroot

So, the Hale scandal has gotten me thinking again about privacy and business on the web. Have some random thoughts.

These thoughts aren’t about identity, or issues like outing fans; that was malice and vandalism in order to punish ‘competitors’ and gain traffic. Let us instead talk about privacy and anonymity on the web at large. Hale is trying to take advantage of business opportunities, so let us consider the kinds of information commercial sites can get about you, which has little to do with identity as fandom usually considers it.



It's amazing the things your computer will tell any other computer that asks, and a lot of people seem not to know that. Every site you visit records your IP address, your location, your operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux), your browser (IE, Firefox, etc.), where you came from (unless either your browser or the referring site is particularly set not to answer that one), and any other knick knacks of information the site in question is programmed to ask, like your screen resolution or what other software you have running. To see what your IP alone can tell a site about you, take a look at whatismyipaddress, which also has some notes about how to conceal some of that information should you wish to.

As for cookies, the tag that your own browser stores to tell sites "match me to X information profile, it's me again", well those are handy for a number of programming purposes, but they're not necessary. They're just insurance, and unless you're taking measures to mask your IP address, that will identify you across subsequent visits even if you have a different cookie-profile for every one. If you check the box that says "do not remember me on this site" that just means that you won't have the benefit of the information that site has on who you are. It doesn't necessarily mean the site owners won't.

Most small or personal sites, run via the computers of hosting companies, don't keep the raw data for more than a month at a time, because it does take up storage space. But it's always available for the current month, at least, and can be set up for automatic download if the site owner thinks of it and wants to keep a record. It isn't exactly easy, but it isn't really difficult either.

Most large sites, especially commercial ones, keep their records longer. In some cases, they sell the information; read privacy statements carefully and you often find something along the lines of "we'll never, ever sell your information except to the affiliates we really, really trust." No doubt that "trust" is well paid for. If you have registered with the site, they have your name and email, too, but it's your web browsing patterns that seem to be the valuable information for advertisers; it's the coin of the realm for the commercial web. Consider the Beacon fiasco on Facebook. A whole bunch of businesses agreed to share this information, in order to come up with a comprehensive picture of their users' browsing patterns, the better to sell things to them. Only Blockbuster is facing even the possibility of legal repercussions, so far.

For the most part, laws on this subject don't exist in the US. Individual providers or merchants may have policies about privacy and the sharing or publication of "marketing" information, but that's purely voluntary and subject to change. Most of the (few) privacy laws relate to what the government can and can't access or share, not to commercial enterprise.

Yay capitalism, eh?



The thing is, we do all maintain balance of a sort. A thin thread restrains the merchants in question because they don't want to alienate their customers entirely. And the customers don't like finding out about how little privacy they may have, hence the voluntary policies that at least limit information trading. Even more than that, customers don't approve of dishonesty. When the extent of the Beacon network came out, when it was clear that Facebook had misrepresented it as something to share with friends and lied about the extent and of the information gathered, there was uproar. And Facebook backed down.

So Hale hasn't just been abrogating the mores of fandom. Indeed, she hasn't been acting within fandom at all; that was merely the front. She has also crossed the line for a commercial web-entrepreneur. She has suggested that her site was for fandom and/or historical research purposes, when, in fact, it is a commercial site. This is one of the few triggers just about guaranteed to anger and alienate prospective customers, thus demonstrating that not only is she a dishonest merchant but she's not even good at it.

I'll just be over here, watching the karma drop from a great height.

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