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Now that America’s lawmakers have repaired the world economy, they can turn their attention to more mundane matters, such as saving the Internet.

There’s an inherent conflict between traditional notions of personal privacy and the Internet’s emerging goldmine, targeted advertising. Other than the subscription fees that carriers collect for access to the Internet itself, the only reliable revenue stream the ’Net has ever generated is ad sales, which mostly depend on the advertiser having knowledge of the consumer’s tastes and interests.

Google's targeted advertising program AdSense is even more intrusive than the controversial Phorm and NebuAd systems. For example, Gmail scans your personal communication for keywords - there is no opt-out, and using a secure tunnel is no protection. More recently, Google has stepped up the aggressiveness of its program by shifting the tracking cookie used by AdSense from an opt-in to an opt-out system of consent, where opting-out requires arcane knowledge on the part of the consumer

"The tension between privacy and revenue took center stage in a House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet hearing on Internet privacy at which I was a witness recently. The new chairman, Rick Boucher, intends to conduct a series of hearings around a privacy bill he’s promised to introduce later in the session, the next of which will include actual ad merchants, such as Google and Yahoo.

No major American ISP is currently using DPI to track consumer behaviour, and the web trackers would prefer it remains that way. The practical implication of the current state of play would have Google gaining a functional monopoly on targeted advertising in the very near future, at which point we might reasonably expect Congress to beg ISPs to start using DPI to track consumer behaviour.

Instant Karma

As Scott McNealy and others have observed, there’s precious little privacy on the Internet. I was reminded of this by the author of one of the first Internet RFCs on my flight to DC. But that doesn’t prevent Google’s champions from using the privacy canard to preserve the status quo. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D, Google) tried to skewer me before the committee because of a remark in my written testimony on the conflict between privacy and targeted advertising - I suggested that the only way to ensure personal privacy in the long term is for users to pay for content and services. The threat to privacy isn’t technical. It is a consequence of the Internet’s business model.

Eshoo quoted one of my sentences, calling it a modern day “Modest Proposal,” and asked the fire-breathing privacy advocates what they thought about it. The answer she got set her back on her heels, as the only witness to answer, EPIC chairman Marc Rotenberg, took the point even further, warning that the growth of unfettered advertising would come to have a corrupting effect on publishing itself, leading to a credibility meltdown of sorts.

Score 1-nil to the geek.

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Next page: The Kumbaya Moment

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