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Free online – You’re the Product, not a Customer

Limits for online data collection

Free online – You’re the Product, not a Customer

Image courtesy of [photoraidz] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It has become a maxim in the digital world: If you’re getting something for free online, you’re not the customer — you’re the product.

The point is that those providing whatever service you are using probably are collecting marketing information about you that they’re likely selling.

It’s a transaction that countless Americans are willing to engage in. But there must be limits to data mining, and people should have clear explanations of what personal data is being collected and uncomplicated ways of opting out.

A California court case over Google’s practice of mechanically scanning e-mail content in order to create user profiles has brought these issues into sharp focus.

A federal judge recently found Google might have violated wiretap laws by perusing e-mails of those who send messages to Gmail accounts but are not customers.

The distinction is legally important because non-Gmail account holders did not agree to the terms of use. The ruling means the case can go forward.

Judge Lucy Koh, of the Northern District Court of California, also said the “reasonable” Gmail user wouldn’t understand the e-mail scanning process, even after reading the privacy policy. And she expressed skepticism about the legality of the practice.

“Accordingly, the statutory scheme suggests that Congress did not intend to allow electronic communication service providers unlimited leeway to engage in any interception that would benefit their business models,” Koh wrote.

The case raises broader privacy concerns. Ordinary Americans should know that it’s not just the National Security Agency that is collecting data about them.

Marketers are amassing vast troves of data about online users. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the number of companies collecting “information about the reading habits, health concerns, financial capacity, search queries, purchasing patterns and other activities of online consumers has skyrocketed.”

Marketers argue it enables companies to show Internet users ads that are relevant to their lives. Opponents call the online tracking an invasion of privacy that isn’t as anonymous as proponents claim.