Sunday, June 6, 2010

Give Data, Get Stuff: Always Present and Evolving

Last week The New York Times had an article, Web Start-Ups Offer Bargains for Users’ Data, that started like this:

As concern increases in Washington about the amount of private data online, and as big sites like Facebook draw criticism that they collect consumers’ information in a stealthy manner, many Web start-ups are pursuing a more reciprocal approach — saying, in essence: give us your data and get something in return.

The article cites relative newcomers like Mint and WeShop, yet it omits that The New York Times itself was a pioneer in this practice circa 1997. The email address I registered with is from then, and I distinctly remember the ask for demographic data at the time.

Here is a third party’s description from 1998 of the Times’ registration process and rationale:

Registration to the New York Times online is free, although you do have to give a valid email address and you are asked some demographic questions like your age, sex and household income. This service, and many thousands of others on the Net, is free because you have paid for it with information about yourself. Personally identifiable information is rapidly becoming “coin of the realm” of the online world. Those “free” registrations are a barter of your information for a product.

It’s true that newer services like Mint are more direct in their use of your data on your behalf, but the idea of “give data to get stuff”—and the attendant privacy concerns—is not so much a new trend as an ever-evolving constant of the Internet age.

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