Saturday, January 9, 2010

In the Battle for Online Identity, Privacy is the Casualty

Content consumption on the Internet is rapidly becoming mainstream. Given the increasing amount of content that is moving online, and the dis-proportionate influence that online services are having on our day-to-day lives, Internet based companies are in a race to have a ringside view of our online behavior. And what better way to obtain such data than to be the gatekeeper to the web. It is in this context that leading players such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are trying to push their 'connect' products, or so to say, reach extenders. These single-sign-on applications help websites across the web significantly cut down on the efforts required by a casual browser to interact with them, whilst providing Facebook & Co with a goldmine of usage data. While companies such as Facebook will market this as a manner of enhanced utility for the consumer, however, the truth remains that control and knowledge of usage behavior online is indeed going to be a key determinant of online success. As it is, targeted advertising on Facebook is taking advertising to hitherto virgin territory. On the mobile platform, Google is attempting to become this gatekeeper that offers 'open' access into which only the company has 'closed' access. Its recent acquisition of Admob now ensures that Google has a ringside view in to consumer behavior on this emerging platform. 

Facebook has already embarked on a monetization path of user data. The recent about-turn that Facebook did with respect to user privacy settings marks the beginning of a change that is likely to become more prevalent across the web. While most major online players have thus far resisted the allure of making user data public, Facebook's stance marks a major shift for the Internet as we have known. For, the company's changes impact over 350 million people directly. And despite what the folks at Facebook would have you believe, the question over how much privacy is 'enough' privacy has yet to be answered clearly by the consumer. The fact that consumers are sharing more and more personal info does not mean that everyone wants it to be revealed to a global audience. Likewise, the increasing social nature of the web  and the rise of conversational media can hardly be an excuse for Facebook or other online players to reset established privacy rules. The sad part is, revealing personal info and looking at monetizing them through search is the easy way out. If Facebook or other social networks indeed wish to remain relevant over the long term, they should probably spend more time in creating alternate business models.

As our day-to-day lives and our online personas start intertwining and integrating more often, with usage of smartphone applications, we can only expect more such developments. Facebook might have been the first, but they definitely wont be the last ! 
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