Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Free isnít free on the lawless Internet

Operating on the Internet is free, right? Or nearly free. It runs from 99 cents to $9.99, depending on what applications one uses on a tablet, computer or smart phone.

That's still cheap. Yet whether it's free or 99 cents and up, the price doesn't reflect the full cost of operating on the web.

Along with every web browser or application comes something called "terms of use" that users must accept to receive and operate it. Most users click the "accept" button without reading anything. The terms are just a bump in the road on the way to getting cool apps.

What's not really cool is in the fine print of the terms of use in which the user more often than not must agree to give up personal information to the company that provides web search or an application. More often than not, a user cannot refuse to give up the information. Refusal simply isn't allowed if the user wants to use the application.

The information surrendered includes things like email address, name, age, location and web browsing history. With Facebook, it can be much, much more. For a generation that grew up with the Internet, this may not seem like a big deal, but it is. A very big deal. Why? Because it turns out that George Orwell was wrong when, in his book "1984," he described Big Brother as the threat of the future. It turns out that in the year 2012, Big Brother is not the government, as Orwell expected. Instead, it's giant Internet corporations, including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, that sell your personal information to the highest bidder without giving users any opportunity to opt out of what many privacy experts see as a devil's deal.

The corporate Big Brothers sell the information to advertisers through their ability to very narrowly target consumers. For example, a web user who conducts a search for "chickens" may suddenly find himself inundated with ads for chicken-related items for sale.

So hungry are the big web companies for private personal information that Google conducted electronic burglary on Apple's Safari web browser to scoop up what Safari collects and make it its own. Google said it stopped the practice after it was caught.

Last week the Obama White House put out a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights to get Congress to focus on passing new laws to protect consumer privacy on the Internet. One of seven privacy rights would guarantee consumers the "right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it."

Industry trade groups have already balked and proposed a self-policing system for big search-engine companies.

Congress shouldn't delay. Consumers need protection. Congress must bring law to the lawless Internet.

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