COOKIES

AN IRONIC INCONSISTENCY

 
It is a fascinating irony that if we walk into her pub and she remembers us, calls out our name and asks us if we want the usual -- knowing what we normally order -- we are flattered and feel like we belong. We are honored.

But if a commercial website puts a cookie on our browser and remembers what we order so that we can be greeted on our next visit with a knowledge of our preferences -- even suggesting an item that matches our interests, many consider this an invasion of our privacy and even an insult.

We recognize that there is a difference between a person greeting us and a programmed machine performing the greeting, but the motivation is the same -- to serve you better for all the usual reasons.

 
 

YOUR PRIVATE PLACES

Privacy is reserved for private places. Even though you may think you're in a private place because you are surfing the web in your pajamas, you are in public space when you access the internet.

Special relationships of trust exist between doctors and their patients and lawyers and their clients. But, we recognize these as special relationships. Other commercial relationships have a lower expectation of privacy. In the public place that is the web we should have realistically low expectations of privacy. This is not, in itself, bad. Worship may be a very private matter. But, we accept that if we walk or drive to church, we may be observed. Shopping on the internet is not a private matter. We do it in public -- even though we whisper our credit card number to the merchant using SSL encryption.

There are, indeed, bad behaviors that should be condemned in the virtual world. These behaviors have equivalent behaviors in the non-virtual world. If the merchant misuses your credit card, he is guilty of stealing -- just like on Main Street. Spamming is hated because it is equivalent to someone rudely stopping you on the sidewalk to sell you something, interrupting your chosen conversation with friends. It's just rude. Any kind of internet spying that is used to discriminate against you or persecute you is a violation of ethical standards in every realm.

But, rembering who you are and what you like to order is equivalent to the friendly barkeep pictured above who wants to serve you better, more personally -- even if he simply wants you to buy your next drink from him instead of the bar across the street.

Now consider this. What if the barkeep asks her young assistant to follow you down the street to see where else you shop and what else you might order. This is a bit creepy and frankly, unrealistic in the nonvirtual world. But in cyberspace the merchant only has to put a cookie on your browser. The cookie gathers your shopping behavior so that next time you visit, the site can even more closely match its suggestions with your real preferences. As long as the motivation is to serve you better, it's hard to criticize this behavior.

Secrets are guaranteed to remain secret 1) if they are never divulged or 2) if they are told to a trusted person with the understanding that the secrets were given in confidence. Neither of these conditions exist when engaging in commerce in a public space -- even in the nonvirtual real marketplace. Cyberspace is a new type of public space. But it is public space. It's best to understand that when you are in public, you may be observed.

So be kind, honest, law-abiding and don't be shy. Your fear should not be derived from being observed. As in the days before the internet, you need only fear those who act with malice towards you.


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