Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Question of Trust

Even though I’ve been a daily internet user since 1995, these readings actually shocked me. What was most shocking is that I had no idea how much technology had advanced to allow tracking and targeting to evolve to its current level. The next thing I found shocking is that is seems that very few people actually know how extensive the tracking actually is.

It seems to me that on a very basic level when I visit a site there is an unspoken level of trust. I’m not there to do bad things to them, and they aren’t going to take advantage of me. Now I feel that trust is somewhat betrayed. To me it would be like taking out a loan, trusting the person who is explaining the loan details, signing all the contracts, then getting home and realizing that the loan is going to cost me thousands of dollars more because I didn’t read the fine print.

Legally what just happened is OK, I signed a contract, shame on me if I didn’t understand the Terms of Service, so to speak, of the contract. But is it morally justifiable what the loan officer did? I’d have to argue that it wasn’t morally justifiable to hide behind his Terms alone and not explain them fully before I made a decision.

I see this as a corollary to what is going on now. is a perfect example; I used them all the time, up until I read this week’s assignment. What they are doing is certainly not illegal, and I’m sure somewhere on their site they do list in some way that my interaction on their site is being recorded somehow, but is it a moral way to do business. Hiding behind the fine print of a Terms of Service agreement is a cowardly act, the first paragraph should be in plain English describing briefly and accurately what is being done to me or my computer when I log into their site.

Unfortunately, for us as users, it’s only going to get worse as technology advances. A recent personal example came to light the other day is a set up my shiny new iPhone. I plugged it in, signed in, and then was asked if I agreed to the Terms of Service, which happened to be 34 pages long. 34 pages for a $50 dollar phone, if you bought a $50,000 car from me and I pulled out a 34 page contract, you’d laugh and walk out, no way wound you sign a 34 page contract that without a lawyer looking at it.

Are the companies being legal and playing within the rules that our politicians set forth to keep them in check? Yes they are. But is it morally right? I think not.


  1. Interesting point about having an unspoken level of trust. I think most people feel that way, even if we don't think about it much. And the internet is so intangible you sometimes don't know when it's causing you harm. The example shocked me too. I've been on there many times, and it seems so innocuous. I mean, it's a dictionary! Wow.

    34 pages - that's ridiculous. That's hard to believe. I've said it before, but there should be a plain English, non-legally binding version that summarizes the legalese (which is also useful for legal reasons, but should never be confused for readable).

  2. Mark, I think that you brought up a great point about how many people don't realize the extent of which their internet browsing is being tracked. Websites have developed extremely subtle ways to disguise the fact they you are being tracked. For instance, the Terms of Service example that you described, and that icebergtheorist commented on, is compelling. I don't think that I've ever had a Terms of Service box pop up when I use Google!

  3. What's particularly interesting bout this post is that you bring up the issue of ethics, and that's part of the heart of the matter. Certainly, these sites aren't breaking a law, but that doesn't mean their practices are ethical, or good business practice. And, perhaps, laws need to be changed to reflect that.

    The iPhone (and other smartphones) also enter into fascinating and potentially troubling debates on privacy, because with these, apps are literally tracking our physical moves. They can triangulate our location (if we allow them to) at any given time. Is the productivity and enjoyment they offer worth they trade-off?