(A Javascript-enabled browser is required to email me.)

TBTF for 1995-10-01: Web-site registration and privacy

Keith Dawson (dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com)
Sun, 1 Oct 1995 23:52:40 -0400

An increasing number of Web sites request or require some identifying infor-
mation from the visitor before granting access to the "good stuff" (whatever
it is that the site is offering). Users have legitimate privacy concerns about
what these sites are now doing with this information, what they intend to do,
and what they may do in the future.

Hotwired <http://www.hotwired.com/> was one of the first sites to require user
accounts. The site was intended from the beginning to support itself from ad-
vertising revenue. Advertisers expect some indication of the demographics of
the audience they're reaching, and you just can't get this information from
Web server logs (see TBTF for 1995-09-10, "What did the server know and when did
it know it?" <1995-09-10.html>). So from the first Hotwired captured name
and email address in exchange for access.

Sites that "back into" advertising on their pages -- for example Infoseek,
Netscape, and Yahoo -- do so because their visitor numbers are compelling.
And with a few hundred thousand visitors a day, or more, they can convince
advertisers that the demographics of their visitors are the demographics of
the Web (see the new O'Reilly survey at <http://www.ora.com/survey/> and the
Web Week coverage of it at <http://www.mecklerweb.com/mags/ww/mon/index.htm>).
The raw numbers obviate the need to collect individual information.

Sites that offer goods or information for a fee -- such as Infoseek
<http://www.infoseek.com> and CDNow <http://www.cdnow.com> -- obviously
need to set up some sort of account database. One expects to provide
information to them when setting up an account, including a credit-card number.

Yesterday I came across a news site put up by The Economist magazine at
<http://www.d-comm.com/>. The site is well organized and well populated,
and carries timely news of the sort I want. Access to the full text of
articles is behind a members-only wall. I went to their sign-up form and
was a bit taken aback: in addition to contact and identifying information
the form requested my age, job title, and occupational category. I did what
any citizen concerned about privacy would do. I lied.

What I wanted to see on this form, and did not see, was a statement about
what use The Economist intended to make of my personal information. I have
to assume that they will sell it.

The exchange below from the apple-internet-authoring mailing list carries
these trends further, discussing sites that seem to offer no content at
all behind the wall (which you don't discover until you have given them
your information), and inventive ways to confound them. This thread started
with discussion about the multiple member-name/passwords that some users
are acquiring, and the difficulties in managing them.

>>Venanzio@i-site.on.ca (Venanzio Jelenic):
>>An excellent example is the "briarwood" home page
>>[<http://www.briarwood.com/> -- ed.] ... Their site simply built to
>>gather info -- there is nothing there. I've subscribed multiple times in
>>the hopes of viewing their "curriculum" database, no luck. I think the
>>whole thing is just a "put on". More of these popping up daily. :-( When
>>they have enough "suckers" they will actually build something. If they
>>don't they can always sell the mailing list !
>>The "Web" has become the worlds' first FREE "focus group" with 20
>>million potential participants. (Normally they pay you to participate, or
>>at least offer some "freebies" for your services -- now, on the net, they
>>simply get you to "sign up" and *then* proceed with their business plan

>Richard.Johnson@Colorado.EDU (Richard Johnson):
>The members of one mailing list I'm on have a good habit for dealing
>with "tell me who you are" sites that provide no payback (i.e., all of
>them, so far?). They have a group standard login and password standard.
>If the site demands an email address for a confirmation, they just use
>the list's broadcast address.
>How about a mailing list and archive/web page dedicated solely to
>recording login and password pairs for various "tell me who you are"
>sites? We're all just one mass of biomatter, after all. Why should we
>take up more than one slot in some marketeer's database...
>How would the marketeer sites retaliate, in their attempt to collect data
>about patsies^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hconsumers for sale? Would they actually have
>to start providing some kind of distinguishing value?

Internet Profiles Corp. <http://www.ipro.com/> is offering a solution to
some of these problems, trying for a win-win between advertisers wanting
demographics and users wanting privacy. They are promoting the I/CODE,
which participating Web sites can use in lieu of registration information.
The I/CODE allows a user to disclose demographic information without reveal-
ing his/her identity. It also offers a form of email anonymity similar to
that provided by an anonymous remailer. Finally, it promises relief from
all those member-name/passwords strings -- when a critical mass of Web sites
has bought into the I/CODE scheme. There's the rub. IPro does not list the
participating sites, but there seem to be only a handful of them so far.

I was heartened to see a statement of IPro's privacy policy, however: they
promise never to disclose the information you provide them, unless you auth-
orize it.

>>From TidBITS (1995-09-25):

>**Adobe Buys Ceneca** -- Adobe Systems announced last week that it
> is buying Ceneca Communications, Inc., makers of the not-yet-
> shipping World Wide Web production and site-management programs
> PageMill and SiteMill, big hits at Boston's Macworld Expo in
> August. (See TidBITS-290.) The amount of money involved was not
> disclosed, and Adobe is expected to integrate Acrobat PDF and
> other Adobe technologies into the products over time. Pricing and
> product availability is expected to be announced in the next few
> weeks.

I've been authoring HTML for a year and a half now using only a simple
text editor (BBEdit on the Macintosh). It's not that I'm a glutton for
punishment, it's that I didn't believe any of the tools I had seen (and
I avidly try everything that comes along) provided much value over a good
text editor. When I saw Ceneca's PageMill at MacWorld Expo last month I
immediately said "I want that"; PageMill is WYSIWYG Web page editing done
intuitively and elegantly. Ceneca's high-end package, SiteMill, inspired
even more technolust in this webmaster.

Ceneca had announced pricing -- $195 for PageMill -- more in keeping
with a corporate clientele than with a mass market. I thought this
shortsighted: price PageMill well under $50 and in three months they
could own the low end of Web content authoring the way Netscape now
owns the browser market.

I'm not happy to hear of the impending Adobe acquisition. Adobe is not
known for its popular pricing. Remember, it took them a year and a half
to begin offering Acrobat Reader for free. The _reader_. This is not
rocket science, it's Marketing 101: you give away the razor and sell the
razorblades. I believe the acquisition means that this apparently excel-
lent technology will not grow beyond a corporate niche anytime soon.


>>apple-internet-authoring mailing list: mail listproc@abs.apple.com with-
> out subject and with message: subscribe apple-internet-authoring Your Name .

>>TidBITS -- mail listserv@ricevm1.rice.edu without subject and with
> message: subscribe TidBITS Your Name .

TBTF alerts you twice a week to bellwethers in computer and communications
technology, with special attention to commerce on the Internet. See the
archive at <http://www.tbtf.com/>. To subscribe send the
message "subscribe" to tbtf-request@world.std.com.
Keith Dawson dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com dawson@atria.com
Layer of ash separates morning and evening milk.