This is a post that I am guessing will get some fairly passionate responses on either side of the debate.  Here’s the question lots of people are asking today: where and how much does privacy really matter to you online?  This is a critical question for 3 reasons:

  1. Marketers have more data about people than they ever have
  2. Social networks are experimenting with new ways to let marketers use data that was previously hidden
  3. People are sharing more and more of their private lives online

I wrote a piece about two weeks ago for the ThinkerNet site which talked about why identity may be the future of online advertising.  The article got some very good reasoned comments from folks who wondered whether Facebook may be overstepping their bounds and compromising their user’s privacy.  These are valid questions hovering around many other sites and social networks as well.

I recall another such uprising a few years ago when Google first introduced Gmail with a similarly contentious idea … serving text ads based on the content of your email.  You may disagree with me on this, but I feel that one place online where I am most concerned about privacy is in my email.  The simple reason for this is that the information I choose to share on any social network is up to me.  My email, on the other hand, is usually meant to be private.

For these reasons, I would say that privacy matters most to me in my email, and less so in my profiles on social networks.  Does this mean that I want people grabbing my personal details or stealing my identity?  Of course not.  But the problem is that many people are lumping privacy concerns into this single bucket.  Just because someone serves ads against data they have doesn’t mean they are going to sell your credit card information and email address to the highest bidder.  When Google first introduced Gmail, it came with the unheard of condition that in order to get it, you would have to be comfortable with them serving text ads against the content of your emails

Yet in time I got used to it – as most Gmail users did.  Perhaps I’m unique, but I’ve even been guilty of sending myself an email with a brand or product name in it so I will get the associated Google ads with discount codes and links that I can click on and follow to purchase an item I was already buying.  So, here’s the real question I am coming to … if we can all get used to Google’s algorithms reading our private emails and serving ads against them, then won’t we all get used to identity targeting schemes like Facebook’s beacon as well?  What do you think?

Update (12/11/07)Seth Godin just posted about privacy online asking a similar question …