Privacy International has tracked the development of the Internet since the creation of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, concerned that this medium provides the potential for a haemorrhage of personal privacy. PI argues that Internet companies should embrace a wider range of privacy protections for users.
The privacy threat on the Internet arises from a number of factors. Increasing disclosure by consumers of personal information allows companies to capture and process data to a significant extent. New technologies permit the capture of increasingly detailed levels of information. Meanwhile, new Internet products often involve a requirement for user registration, enabling of identifying techniques and agreement to terms and conditions that are frequently hostile to privacy.
However the emergence over the past three years of an aggressive move by major Internet companies into "ad space" has created the most recent and possibly most dangerous threat to privacy. With the creation of a greater range of products and services, increased disclosure of personal information and the evolution of a huge user population came the opportunity to establish new forms of user targeting and profiling to generate greater advertising revenue.
Privacy International has been concerned that this development may result in a 'lowest common denominator' for privacy. In contrast to the 1990's vision of the Internet, in which strong privacy could become a market differentiator, the reality in 2007 is that all major Internet players may move to establish a level of user surveillance that results in little or no choice for Internet users and relatively few meaningful privacy mechanisms. Market domination by a handful of key players will ensure that without care, a race to the bottom will evolve during the immediate future.
Privacy International's decision to undertake the privacy ranking study is a first attempt at understanding the full spectrum of the privacy threat and to discover where each key player stands with regard to privacy protection. The long term goal of this report is not necessarily to 'name and shame' but to highlight crucial trends and imperatives that will shape the future of privacy on the Internet.