Chances are you’ll be getting a notice regarding changes in privacy policies from the various web sites from hgtv.com (Home and Garden) to myspace and other publishers and advertising related businesses associated with the Internet Advertising Bureau.

These changes in privacy policies are the result of a new marketing approach endorsed by the Internet Advertising Bureau establishing tighter integration of data collected by media sites with databases of advertisers and others who serve ads to the public on the Internet. Members of the IAB are a who’s who in the Internet industry including Google, Yahoo!, double-click, AOL, the NYTimes, Cox Communications, and others who have accepted the vision of major marketers who are interested in maximizing their advertising dollars by using all the data available to minimize advertising waste and maximize their marketing punch. This means you and I are going to have our on line activities sliced and diced finer than that latest kitchen gadget offered by Ron Popiel.

The IAB said its members will follow five basic privacy principles henceforth:

1. Consumers should be provided meaningful notice about the information collected and used for interactive advertising
2. Consumers should be informed of their choices regarding interactive advertising and empowered to exercise those choices
3. Businesses should implement appropriate information security practices and procedures
4. Businesses should be responsive and accountable to consumers
5. Companies should educate consumers about the benefits of interactive advertising

Basically this sounds reasonable on its face but the constant use of the word ‘should’ is bothersome. These guidelines are voluntary as are the privacy statements by every website around. I feel it instructive to see how these principals are implemented in one of the new privacy notices I received via email Monday. It reads:

If you do not agree to the new terms of use, do not continue to use our sites. Continued use constitutes acceptance. If you object to the changes to our privacy policies, you can opt out of the new policy below with respect to your PII collected under the old policy. However, any new PII you supply us will be governed by the new policy.

The slick thing here is that all prior information collected, including personally identifiable information (PII) offered in the past, is automatically included under the new privacy policy unless you read that email and opted-out.

Privacy is something that as a small town publisher I have to grapple with frequently, although I have to admit the issues are different on the hyperlocal level. For instance, I have been asked dozens of times about the identities of various members by politicians and others who had been questioned pointedly by an individual hiding behind a screen name. My privacy policy requires that I honor the decision of the individual to remain anonymous unless that information is the subject of a subpoena. In my privacy policy I reserve the right to fight the subpoena or, at my sole discretion, to cooperate.

Indeed, my privacy policy suggests that if I feel a member is committing a crime that would bring disrepute to my site (or if I am the target) I reserve the right to be proactive and even initiate an investigation of a member.

Of course not all members on the site are anonymous or seek to be. We offer a membership license to businesses and politicians who, by definition, seek to promote themselves. Anonymity in those cases would defeat the purpose of the member being on the site. Other individuals, because they choose to participate in public events hosted by the site opt out of their anonymity as they increase their prominence in the community.

Notably, my site provides several password protected forums designed to prevent national search engines from cataloging sensitive personal information deposited there by members. Restricted forums include those where transcripts of emergency radio traffic are placed; where adults interact in a way that might be considered a little racy and even forums where members talk about their health with others. These forums are hidden from the search services by password because if someone is taking a particular drug, that information need not be cataloged for retrieval by the search engines.

Perhaps more important is the reality that as a small, independent operation, we are in no way capable of parsing our own database to pull lifestyle pointers and deliver them to large-scale marketers of any kind.

That doesn’t mean the lifestyle information provided by members in conversation is not being used for marketing. I dare say that if a person wrote on the site they needed a washing machine repaired, they’d have two or three posts from local appliance repair or handy man service in a matter of minutes. Heck, extend the time to a couple of hours and they’ll likely have been offered a used replacement washing machine, a link to a new one on sale, a neighbor’s offer to do the ‘babies clothes’ tonight if needed, and at least two recommendations for yet another repairman.

This is because, on the hyperlocal scale, the marketer – whether it be a real estate agent, appliance repairman or car salesman – is a human being interacting with their neighbors. This is the essence of high-tech, high-touch that John Nesbitt explored in his 1982 book Megatrends.

This approach contrasts with the IAB marketer driven approach simply because it is human and real. What is the individual going to get when visiting, say Yahoo! with his need for an appliance repair after marketers have sorted through tetra-bytes of data? My gut is he’ll get an ad delivered by some web-savvy key word bidder who lives two counties away and won’t be able to serve him for three days.

Do recognize that in the grand scheme of things, I know my little hyperlocal site is of little more importance than a zit on the butt of stray bulldog in the suburbs of Atlanta. But when I look at the direction those who have the advantage of these kinds of economies of scale, I see my mind boggled by the super human sophistication represented by the marketing geniuses of the Internet Advertising Bureau..

I mean, we’re talking about the most private, most intimate information imaginable — from the types of prescription medications (does she have AIDS) kinky sex toy purchases and credit cards used to pay for speeding tickets. No wonder Nesbitt, in his latest book entitled “High Tech, High Touch”, suggested we were running away from the high-tech aspects of the computer.

Think, too, of the disconnect regarding privacy when we protest our government’s use of the Patriot Act to review the reading habits of people in public libraries but ignore the collection of the same data by corporate entities who will share or sell it to each other (or the government) with at most, self-interested, self-regulation the only barrier.

I’m a competitor in this ‘game’ of new media and I think that, because the Net finally has ‘reach’ into geographic markets, hyperlocal media makes more sense because its scale is simply more human.

But as I look at the advantages the big players bring to this competition, I shudder as I utter “I don’t like it.” As a small town, community publisher, as a citizen and as a consumer, what they are doing is a threat to my freedom, my privacy and my business.

So what am I going to do about it?

That is a tough one. As I look at it logically, the data is there; it has been given freely by the consumer and it lies there begging to be used by those who collect it.

There are no particular legal constructs that I am aware that says all personally identifiable information is protected by copyright or trademark or otherwise inherently restricted or protected. Indeed, the constitutional prohibitions regarding privacy largely restrict government in its use of this data most particularly in court, not private enterprise. (Even today the information the government collects in its Census data is a key marketing information tool.)

Don’t forget that the major players in the media and marketing industry are on board in exploiting this resource (IAB) and, other than feeling rather lonely in my dislike of this direction, I see little hope. Maybe, events, like the 18th Annual CFP: Technology Policy ’08 conference hosted by Yale Law school this coming May 20th -23rd could provide us a clue as to a direction.

For the uninformed (and until I received an email about this Knight funded event as I was writing this, I was among them) this event touts itself as “an opportunity to help shape public debate on those issues being made into laws and regulations and those technological infrastructures being developed. The direction of our technology policy impacts the choices we make about our national defense, our civil liberties during wartime, the future of American education, our national healthcare systems, and many other realms of policy discussed more prominently on the election trail. Policies ranging from data mining and wiretapping, to file-sharing and open access, and e-voting to electronic medical records will be addressed by expert panels of technologists, policymakers, business leaders, and advocates.

This thought from EFF.org site regarding privacy:

“Technology isn’t the real problem, though; rather, the law has yet to catch up to our evolving expectations of and need for privacy. In fact, new government initiatives and laws have severely undermined our rights in recent years.”

I don’t know that the law can ‘catch up.’ Can the law can even parse this issue considering the data in question — customer lists with notations regarding preferences — are about as basic a data set as exists in business. How can government write a law to restrict its use or even how well one maintains the data.

Still I don’t like it.

G. Patton Hughes