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Internet Filtering Software Makers Held to Higher Standard on Sharing User Data

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After the Chinese government's ill-advised Internet filtering mandate, since rescinded, caused an uproar, companies that make Internet filtering and parental monitoring software are in the news again for controversial reasons.

AP broke this story about EchoMetrix Inc., the maker of Sentry and FamilySafe parental control software, collecting data from its users and selling it to other companies and marketers that wish to study kids' online behavior.

Prior to that, Symantec announced a list of kids' top 100 search terms, data collected through its OnlineFamily.Norton service. The title of the official announcement proclaimed, "School's Out and Your Kids Are Online: Do You Know What They've Been Searching For This Summer?", drawing sharp criticism from the likes of D.C. Vito, Executive Director of The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project), a non-profit providing multimedia skills to youths, parents and educators. D.C. Vito raises the question,

This company has a multi-million dollar annual budget, so what do you think it does with the statistics and demographics it compiles from the users of this "free" service?

Internet filtering and parental control products may not be preferred by every parent. Many parents choose to simply discuss appropriate usage with their children; many others use Internet filtering products as training wheels until they feel confident. While the decision makers who purchase and setup the software are parents or school administrators, the actual end users whose browsing behavior is being monitored are children -- a highly targeted demographic for marketers and companies that want to sell products to them.

While EchoMetrix actually makes money out of the data it sells to marketers, Symantec's announcement is more of a social observation and a "teachable moment" for parents, though the company is arguably using the widely published announcement to promote its service. Neither Symantec nor EchoMetrix are violating privacy laws, since the data under question is aggregated across thousands of anonymous users over time, and there is no way to attribute the overall behavior to a specific user. Ethical questions arguably remain, though. Were the parents informed that the data will be used for marketing purposes? Was this made obvious enough when they signed up, or was it obscured inside the fine print? Were the kids aware that they are going to be judged by the world at large, along with their peers and friends? Probably not.

At Mobicip.com, a parental control and Internet filtering service for the iPhone and iPod Touch, we have stayed away from using data on our user behavior for any purpose, mainly due to the arguably ethical and potential PR issues associated with it. This is not a new controversy. David Burt at FilteringFacts.org writes about a now-defunct company called N2H2, a top-selling vendor to public schools in 2001. David writes,

the thinking was that since this was "anonymous, aggregate data" there were no privacy concerns. The company also felt that since notification about the monitoring and reuse of data was in the product End User License Agreement (EULA), this would also help cover the company. The reality was that these defenses were of almost no use during the PR firestorm that followed.

According to this 2001 AP report,

privacy groups called the filtering company a "corporate predator" and were incensed over reports the information would be sold to the Defense Department for recruiting.

Mr. Burt concludes,

What's the takeaway here? Just because what a company is doing with user data is legal, described in the EULA, and anonymous does NOT necessarily mean it's going to be OK with customers.

Apparently, this conclusion applies only to Internet filtering software companies. Even the big G does it. Yes, Google publishes the Zeitgeist -- a list of top and fast-rising searches on Google published on a daily basis -- which is then aggregated into an annual Zeitgeist that has been published since 2001. For instance, Obama and Palin figured in the 2008 US list, not at all surprising, but an interesting fact/trivia nevertheless. How did Google know? According to Google Zeitgeist,

our search team studied the aggregation of billions of search queries people typed in to the Google search box. Except where noted, all of these search terms are most popular for 2008. All of the search queries we studied are anonymous -- no personal information was used.

The annual report is typically met with good coverage by magazines and blogs, but seldom has the issue of Google "spying anonymously" on user behavior ever been raised.

It appears that Internet filtering companies have a special obligation because of the unique nature of the demographic that uses the service. As a society, we are more sensitive to anyone collecting anonymous information about our children, especially if it is used for marketing purposes, than we are to collecting anonymous information about ourselves.