When A Cookie Is Not A Cookie

Jim Blasingame

Long before Jim Henson's Sesame Street troupe brought to life one of the great gluttons of all time, I had perfected that role. I am the original Cookie Monster. Give me a glass of milk and a sleeve of Oreos or Chips Ahoy and I am in nirvana. Many a Girl Scout has made her quota just on my Thin Mint order.

Pies and cakes are fine. But how could one improve on the delivery method of a cookie: a handy confectionery morsel requiring no utensil, platform, or paperwork in order to become the drug-of-choice for my sweet tooth.

Don't Mess With My Cookies
As a purist and self-proclaimed cookie expert, I was surprised to learn that the word "cookie" has a different meaning in cyberspace. In Computer Desktop Encyclopedia, my friend and Brain Trust member, Alan Freedman, defines a cyberspace "cookie" as "a string of small text characters assembled by a Web server, transmitted to you, and stored on your computer in your browser's cookie file." Did you know your browser had a cookie jar - I mean, file?

Alan goes on to say that "cookies" were originally intended to make life easier for Web surfers. Once you had registered at a site requiring such action in order to use its services and information, like buying a book online or subscribing to an information bureau, the cookie created from your visit would allow that site to recognize you the next time you visited, thus eliminating your need to re-register.

Here's what such recognition might look like: "Welcome back Jim Blasingame. While you were away, we have identified some new items similar to the ones you chose during your last visit. And when you are ready to check out, if you want to use the same credit card and mailing address, we will have your purchase form ready and waiting for your convenience."

Here's another example: Through the use of cookies, cyber-merchants you have visited or done business with can recognize you, and actually customize banners presented to you based on past preferences you have demonstrated.

Wow! Pretty handy, huh? Sort of like being remembered at one of your favorite small businesses. But...just as a Thin Mints controversy arose between my waistline and my sweet tooth when I hit that birthday that sounds sort of like portly, cyber-cookies have also become controversial.

Those Sinister Cookies
Just as any of mankind's inventions can change from being useful to being abused, the electronic cookie is no different. The employment of cookies to track your activity online, while convenient and friendly to some, is seen as a violation of privacy by others. Which camp do you fall into?

If you don't feel prepared to answer that question, there's no need to feel deficient. You may be one of millions of excited Internet users who are just now learning how to take advantage of all of the wonders cyberspace holds for you, and online privacy has not popped up on your radar screen. Furthermore, just about the only thing that is less mature than the commercial use of the Internet, is the debate about online privacy.

Nevertheless, there is an online privacy war currently being waged, and the combatants are the Information/Technology industry stewards on the one side, and the usual and ubiquitous consumer advocates on the other side. Ironically, both parties in this war believe they are fighting for your rights.

And being dragged into the middle of this battleground as the arbiters of freedom and consumer protection is the Federal government, including Congress and the courts.

The Techies and the Libbies
Let's talk for a minute about these two groups of warriors, and the sources of their righteous indignation.

The I/T fiduciaries - I'll call them Techies - are fighting to let the marketplace police its own privacy behavior and practices. They encourage merchants to adopt and publish a privacy policy that consumers can easily understand and then accept or reject. Consumer education is a key component of this side's strategy. Organizations like the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) have created websites devoted to online privacy issues and education (a link to such a site is provided at the end of this article).

Techies believe that consumers benefit from the free flow of information and applications that are currently available on the Internet, and that the information collected by cookies and other electronic markers, in the hands of good actors, are no different from brick-and-mortar merchants sharing your name, address, and preferences with other merchants. Long before a commercial Internet existed, there was an industry devoted to the creation, sale, and use of lists. You, no doubt, are on many of them. Yes, that's where all those catalogues you didn't order come from.

The consumer advocates - I'll call them Libbies - are fighting to prevent your privacy from being violated. Libbies don't want merchants darting, tagging, and tracking you as you wander around in cyberspace, unless it is done with your expressed permission. Their weapon-of-choice is legislation and the courts.

Opt-In and Opt-Out
The term for such permission is "opt-in." In the strict interpretation, visitors are given a choice as to whether or not they want an online merchant or web host to track, profile, and/or remember them and their personal data. And as you might imagine, if you can choose to opt-in, you should also be given the ability to opt-out.

A significant part of the online privacy debate is over what constitutes an opt-in, and whether a web consumer can passively lose control over how and when his or her information will be used, or if permission must be given expressly.

As an example, here is the privacy policy posted on my website for those who are considering subscribing to my Newsletter: "We will never sell or otherwise distribute any of your information to third parties. You will be able to unsubscribe at any time." You only receive my Newsletter if you opt-in, your privacy is protected while you're here, and when you no longer want to be a subscriber, you can opt-out. Simple but effective, and no one told me I had to do it.

Online Privacy Is A Big Deal
The online privacy issue is a big one - too big for any one article to cover. My objective here is more to introduce than to educate. If you use the Internet, you are a participant, passively or actively, in the online privacy debate. I encourage you to become more of an active participant.

Begin by formulating your personal attitude about online privacy. Here are some starter questions:

• If you like free resources on the Internet, are you willing to have your personal information and preferences collected and aggregated into demographic profiles as a way of paying for those resources?

• If you believe only you should own your information, are you willing to do without some free capability, or in the alternative, pay website hosts, application and content developers, and merchants for the capabilities you want?

• Who should be the gatekeepers of how and when your information is collected and used by others - you, or regulators and lawmakers?

• If you now have, or are planning to add, an e-commerce component to your business plan's web strategy, do you know the economic and practical differences between a world where comprehensive and good faith privacy policies are contracts between vendors and customers, and one where laws and regulations are imposed on these relationships?

• How do we deal with the privacy bad actors who represent a small minority of web hosts and online merchants?

The War Goes On
The online privacy debate on whether the marketplace will provide you with privacy options, or if the government should determine your privacy parameters, is continuing apace. So far, our elected representatives have been uncharacteristically reticent to impose the blunt instruments of government on cyberspace. But today they are hearing mostly from the Techies and the Libbies. They need to hear from regular Internet consumers, like you and me. Let the members of your Congressional delegation know how you feel about online privacy.

Write this on a rock... Whether you are a cookie monster or not, you need to become a cookie expert. Your online privacy position will be based largely on how much personal information you are willing to give up for the sake of convenience and to receive free applications and information. This is a critical decision each of us needs to make soon, or it will be made for us. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the only way for Internet consumers to lose the online privacy war is if good people do nothing.


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