Maybe Customers Should Choose Privacy or Free Content

With all the amazing content available for free on the web, why are customers surprised or upset that companies track your online behavior? Are they seriously "creeped out" that their web searches today drive some of the ads they'll see for the next few weeks? Why?

Does anyone think all that content is pure altruism?

The Free Lunch Concept

Anytime someone goes poking around on a website, it's like going to the open house when a neighbor's property is on the market. It is, after all, an open house — so anyone can walk in.

But does a rational person really think the house is open just for the fun of it? Of course, the real estate agent is going to ask each person to sign the guest book. And what do you think he will do with the names he collects? He will flood them with newsletters and holiday cards for the next decade. It's the price of admission and theoretically it should be worth it.

By the same token, the real estate agent is upfront about that guestbook. A customer can see it, sign it and anticipate what will happen next.

So maybe companies should be more upfront about their data practices. Because in the end, customers have the choice of whether or not they want to go into that open house. And that is the same choice customers should have when they are on the web.

Companies may have the right to collect data. But maybe they also have the responsibility to disclose that fact — and maybe customers really should question any organization that tries to hide the way it uses the data it gathers.

Quite a Conundrum 

Even for me — a relatively simple and straightforward guy — the issue of privacy is not that simple. There are times when I want it (expect it) and other times when I don't care as much. But in all cases, I do expect some level of stewardship on the part of the company. It's like the idea of having fitting rooms at the store so you can try on clothes before buying them. Nobody is surprised or inconvenienced at the notion that there are specific places to try on clothes and those places are behind doors and walls.

Speaking of stewardship (or lack thereof), thanks to the recent data security breach at Target, our credit card issuer just sent new cards to my wife and me. That might seem easy-peasy and we should be thankful the card issuer was proactive — and we are. 

But what about the twenty or so automatic payments we had set up on that card and suddenly we're getting notifications left and right that our payments are no longer working?

Or the fact that we've had the exact same number for over 20 years and we knew the number by heart?

It has been quite the ordeal, and now it's being reported in the news that Target ignored data breach alarms and forwent the opportunity to limit the damage. What?!?

I don't think it's an unreasonable expectation that a company safeguard my payment information. It also happens to be a legal requirement, but still.

If I can't trust you to keep my payment information secure, why do you think I'll trust you to know any other details about me and my family? It still leaves me with my main premise here: How can any of us  expect privacy, especially when it's probably not something strictly black-and-white?

Putting Privacy in Context 

From the company perspective, there is the concept of  "Contextual Privacy" put forth recently by Forrester Analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo webinar produced by Loyalty360. Contextual Privacy is an idea centered on the need for organizations to regard privacy as an opportunity and not something motivated by fear. As she put it, the "new" privacy is all about context. She cited one example of how we might trust Amazon with our payment information and even to provide us with recommendations, but we'd probably not trust the company with sensitive health data.

What I found interesting was her idea that adding context to a consideration of privacy enables control, choice and respect by providing parameters for data access and collection, use and sharing. But most especially, it's about highlighting the value exchange inherent in data and giving the consumer control over that value. 

Khatibloo laid out some recommendations for practicing contextual privacy, including a doctrine of "no surprises," providing a choice for participating and treating more data as "personally identifiable."

boo the dog

For the customer, I think it's useful to remember that part of the value exchange for online content is that it's free of charge. One of the best examples of free is Facebook. Widely used and widely derided for its shifting sands of privacy settings, it's useful to remember that the Social Network is offered free of charge to anyone and his dog (literally).

In the end, there's no such thing as a free lunch. If we want it for free (and we do), we need to expect some amount of data collection and use to occur. Let's get over ourselves and move on.

Title image by Volodymyr Kyrylyuk / Shutterstock.