August 07, 2010, 12:28 PM — Jim Harper is a smart guy. I've had the pleasure of interviewing him on several occasions, and I've always appreciated his contrarian views on privacy even when I didn't agree with them.
In a thoughtful essay in today's Wall Street Journal, Harper argues that without data sharing, the Web wouldn't be what it is today, and the tradeoff between baring our Web surfing habits to advertisers and receiving "free" content is a fair one.
He's right about much of that. But he's wrong about much more.
[ See also: Whom do you fear: Apple, Google, Microsoft, or God? ]
Harper is director of information policy studies at The Cato Institute -- a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian who believes private industry can do a better job policing itself than government can. And for more than a decade, Internet content providers and advertisers argued that very case, convincing Congress to let the Web self regulate on privacy issues.
Here we are ten years later, still wrestling with the same issues -- as well as much bigger issues, like who owns our geolocation data. If self regulation had worked, would we still be talking about this?
Harper argues people are getting their boxers unduly bunched over tracking cookies -- tiny text files Web sites deposit on your machine that can identify your browser when you return to that site or others in the same advertising network.
Usually such cookies are anonymous; they might help someone determine that browser X visited Web sites ABCDE and saw ads from XYWZ. Sometimes, though, they could get tied to your identity, if you register for a Web site and that site (or its advertising network) marries your personal information to your clickstream.
What happens after that? Good question. And good luck finding out.