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Web companies, start-ups race to look privacy-friendly

Somini Sengupta (via NYT/ AFR) | March 4, 2013
In some instances, established companies are trying to gain market advantage by casting themselves as more privacy-friendly than their rivals. For example, Mozilla, an underdog in the browser market, suggested last week that it would allow its users to disable third-party tracking software altogether.

In some instances, established companies are trying to gain market advantage by casting themselves as more privacy-friendly than their rivals. For example, Mozilla, an underdog in the browser market, suggested last week that it would allow its users to disable third-party tracking software altogether.

At the same time, web platform companies are setting limits on other companies with which they do business. Last year, for instance, Apple began requiring applications in its operating system to get permission from users before tracking their location or peering into calendars and contacts stored on an iPhone. Also, a host of companies big and small are offering a variety of privacy tools, ranging from ways to encode Facebook posts to ways to secure personal data stored in the cloud.

During a panel at the RSA Conference, a security-focused industry gathering in San Francisco last week, Brendon Lynch, chief privacy officer at Microsoft, declared that companies like his had come to appreciate the "market forces at play with privacy."

"It's not just privacy advocates and regulators pushing," Mr.Lynch said. "Increasingly, people are concerned more about privacy as technology intersects their life."

That statement might sound somewhat rich to those who recall Microsoft's troubles 10 years ago with European regulators. At that time, it was compelled to make substantial changes to how its online login system, .Net Passport, stored addresses, ages and other personal details.

Nonetheless, earlier this year, the Redmond, Wash.-based company signalled its sensitivity to user privacy by turning on, by default, an antitracking signal in its latest Internet Explorer browser.

Microsoft also took aim at its rival Google with a marketing campaign declaring that consumers were being "scroogled" with targeted advertisements based on their emails and search histories.

Mr Lynch's counterpart at Google, Keith Enright, called that marketing campaign "intellectually dishonest." At the RSA Conference, Mr Enright said Google took pains to secure consumer information and simplify privacy settings.

Joel R. Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School, said Microsoft had made a 180-degree turn in emphasising consumer data protection.

"You're seeing more companies trying to do that - develop privacy protecting services," said Professor Reidenberg, whose Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham has received donations from both Microsoft and Google. "Platforms recognise they have to deal with privacy. They're looking at how they can be competitive."

To some degree, these developments are a sign that the industry is working hard to stave off government regulation, which is moving at a glacial pace anyway. There seems to be no movement on broad privacy legislation on Capitol Hill, and no consensus has been reached on standards for "Do Not Track," a browser setting that would let internet users indicate that they did not want their activity tracked by marketers.

 

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