ETHICOMP Journal Vol 1 Issue 2
A number of recent studies and surveys have examined the impact of the Internet for personal privacy. In many of these studies, authors suggest that a host of contemporary privacy issues are directly attributable to the Internet. However, it is unclear in most of these studies exactly which privacy concerns currently associated with the Internet are unique, or in any way special, to the Internet itself. The purpose of this paper is to consider some important distinctions that can be drawn within the set of privacy issues that are now frequently attributed to the Internet.
It is argued that although most privacy concerns currently associated with the Internet are issues that were essentially introduced by earlier information and communications technologies, at least two instances of Internet-related privacy concerns have resulted from the use of certain technologies or facilities that did not exist prior to the Internet era — viz., privacy issues involving “cookies” and privacy issues involving search engines. Privacy concerns raised by these two technologies are labeled “Internet specific” and are contrasted with those labeled “Internet enhanced.” It is also argued that many of the privacy concerns in the latter category, which may have been introduced in the pre-Internet era, are now exacerbated by certain activities on the Internet. For example, privacy issues resulting from the merging and matching of computerized records across databases, the mining or extracting of data from within one or more computer databases, and the use of data-gathering tools such as forms technologies and server log files to monitor and record the activities of online users — all of which are examples of privacy concerns that were introduced by computing and networking technologies that predate the Internet — are instances of privacy issues that are now exacerbated by the Internet.
In this paper, we also consider the question whether a separate category of privacy, called “Internet privacy,” is needed or whether privacy concerns currently associated with the Internet can be adequately understood in terms of existing categories such as those of information privacy and communications privacy. In answering this question, we shall see that whereas the distinction between Internet-enhanced and Internet-specific privacy concerns is useful in helping us to understand better the impact that the Internet itself has had for personal privacy, a separate category of Internet privacy is not warranted since the majority of privacy concerns currently associated with the Internet are not qualitatively different from earlier privacy concerns that were introduced by pre-Internet, computing and networking technologies.