Thursday, March 22, 2001

Excuse me, is that my identity in your pocket?

Ever since the Sandra Bullock movie "The Net" came out, there has been increasing media attention given to identity theft online, as well as basic privacy issues surrounding the Internet. While it may have seemed far-fetched to some movie-goers at the time, it is unfortunately becoming more and more real. In fact, Silicon Alley's Omar Wasow was on NBC's "The Today Show" Thursday, March 22nd, talking about identity theft and what you can do about it. And last week, the New York New Media Association featured probably its most popular panel to date: "None of Your Business: The Politics and Business Implications of Privacy" at the Equitable Building on Thursday, March 15th. In addition to presenting a sold-out panel with illustrious speakers, NYNMA also released its first white paper on the topic.

The first of three planned white papers, the research was produced in large part by NYNMA's board of directors; its policy committee; Primedia Ventures' Jason Chervokas; Morrison & Foerster's John Kennedy, John Delaney and Matthew Meade; and PriceWaterhouseCoopers' Tom Hyland and Peter Petrusky. The next two will be on intellectual property and taxation. And, in the 'Net-interest of things, it's all online and will be used by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York for the committee report on internet privacy they are producing. Check out NYNMA's report online.

After an eloquent introduction by NYNMA Director of Educational Programs Ellen Auwarter, NYNMA Programs Committee Chair and Board Member Howard Greenstein introduced the panel and the topic. Then they got down to business and the discussions heated up. CNN's Burden of Proof Co-host Roger Cossack kept the conversation moving smoothly among the panelists: The New York Times Columnist William Safire, DoubleClick Inc. Chief Privacy Officer Jules Polonetsky, Guardent, Inc. President Dr. Larry Ponemon, Center for Democracy and Technology Policy Analyst Ari Schwartz, and Morrison & Foerster LLP Chief Architect, Safe Harbor Privacy Accord with EU, and Partner Barbara Wellbery.

As the "elder statesman" of the panel, William Safire was among the liveliest. He drew lots of laughter with comments like, "you're all concerned about privacy because you have something to hide! We all have something to hide - we're living beings!" Roger Cossack did a great job of moving things along, and Jules Polonetsky offered a reality check regarding what happens to people's data, that it's not such a bad thing to get targeted emails or to be victim of credit card fraud. Larry Ponemon, who created the privacy practice at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, offered insightful perspective, as did Ari Schwartz. Barbara Wellbery was brilliant with her great (and global) perspective.

The sometimes vehement, but always interesting, debate covered such topics as "Do we have any more privacy left?" "Can companies change their data collection and exploitation models and still make money?" and "Can self-regulation work." As Jules pointed out, "technology is not good or bad; it's the companies that are good or bad."

Privacy was certainly a big issue and one that's going to affect businesses this year, whether they do business online or not. Barbara brought up the point that businesses need to develop privacy practices and laws based on the type of information they collect, the purpose and the planned use. We have to develop a new approach to the information being collected, including the reason and the purposes. She also warned that if the industry doesn't self-regulate, which she feels is the best approach, there will be more regulation from the government. And that would have fewer nuances and be more restrictive. Depending on how far Congress takes these issues, it could change how information on people is gathered. On the other hand, William Safire argued that the government should get involved because the Internet deals with so many communications issues. To that, Larry Poneman mused, "Can we rely on business to do that which is right?"

Opt-in/opt-out and the pros and cons of this point were also discussed for a while. This is where Safire and Polonetsky sparred the most. Jules Polonetsky's points were that while Safire was all about Opt-in, Polonetsky attempted to educate him on the vast issues on the topic. There needs to be much more research on the topic before the government, or even industry initiatives, step in and regulate. While Congress is just getting up to speed on a lot of the terminology (they're knowledgeable just enough to be dangerous), and they're learning the issues. They will, Polonetsky promised, be intimately involved but we want to make sure that it's at a sophisticated and informed level. The last thing we want is for the government to not fully understand the issues and make clumsy steps that make life difficult for consumers. He reminded us that it's not the data exchange that's the problem. It's only a problem if the data becomes lost or abused. The other issue the industry needs to contend with, and that will involve changing consumer habits and expectations is paying for content or services on the 'Net. Businesses were too quick to offer too much for free, so now consumers expect it so. Now many companies realize they need to make money and either charge or explain what they're doing with the information compiled.

This isn't such a bad thing either. There are a lot of benefits that consumers can gain, including customized services and targeted emails on the brands they buy. However, it's not entirely sensible, since you have to rely on people to take action. And the reality of the matter is that many people are inactive, busy or don't care. So, they don't act on those targeted emails. It's not that they don't care about their privacy; they just don't take the time to answer - especially when they perceive the messages as spam.

Speaking of spam, the dinner for sponsors, board members and selected guests was hosted by I spoke with Co-CEO Justin Greene, who explained the product in depth to me. In an effort to reduce the amount of spam email, you sign up with their system and send out a email address to all the sites where you register. For each site, you create a new Spamex account. Sounds like a lot more email addresses to create, no? Au contraire! All your Spamex accounts forward to one email address, which you specify. Then, when you need to change your email, you simply update the forwarding record with Spamex. You don't have to change your email address with the innumerable sites where you are registered! Pretty nifty, oui? Another major benefit is that if you receive an email that is not from one of the sites where you've signed up, you can go to the Spamex site (via a handy link provided in the email) and see which dog ratted out your email. Then you can deal with them accordingly. Another handy-dandy shortcut that you can add to your browser is a "Links" menu bar, which makes it almost a one-step process to create more Spamex accounts. There are more features, all of which are outlined and demoed at

Among some of the notable guests who took part in this heady night were iXL's Diana Butler and James Burton, FullAudio's Deb Newman, and Morrison & Foerester's John Kennedy, not to mention about 200 other savvy net-heads! The dinner and dessert (a fabulous ice cream-cookie- cake concoction) at Chez Louie's satiated the hard-working NYNMA board, sponsors and panelists. And if you, sadly, missed it all - never fear! You can catch highlights on the cyber cast online.