Opt In or Out?

The New York Times had an editorial piece yesterday on the stored search query debate.

To quote from the Times’ opinion piece,

Whatever the government does, the companies themselves should be acting
more responsibly. People who use the Internet have a right to expect
privacy. If companies do not have their users’ affirmative consent to
keep data, they should delete it, and make money from the many other,
very profitable parts of the search engine business.

I agree with that except the part about "affirmative consent".

I think we need to think long and hard before moving to an opt-in approach to solving all Internet privacy issues. Sure, we have the right to privacy on the Internet, but if we force users to opt into stored queries, stored behavior, stored logins, etc, it will make the Internet a lot less useful.

Today Amazon is storing our clickstreams on Amazon and using that to create a custom home page where we get really useful purchase recommendations. If that was an opt-in feature, about a tenth of the people who find it useful would actually be using it.

Today, Google uses the search and click histories of its users to deliver more relevant search results. If users had to opt-in, most people would find Google less useful.

Today, Rhapsody tracks all the music I listen to and make recommendations for new music that I haven’t listened to that I might like. If I had to opt-in to that feature, I’d probably never have used it.

I believe that what’s needed is user friendly opt-out, not opt-in.

By ‘user friendly opt-out” I mean the following:

1 – Boldly and brightly advertise the fact that you are storing user behavior in a way that everyone who uses the service will understand that fact. And clearly explain the user benefits of storing user behavior. This should be done in plain english not legal boilerplate.

2 – Make it simple and easy to opt out and opt back in. The opt-out should be available directly from the main interface of the service (home page, advertisement, login page, whatever)

3 – Allow users to see their stored behavior anytime they want to do that.

4 – Allow users to delete their stored behavior anytime they want to do that.

I believe that “user friendly opt-out” is vastly superior to opt-in and will give the vast majority of the people who use the Internet the comfort to stay opted in and obtain the benefit that all this stored behavior provides.

For more on this topic, I suggest everyone take a look at the principles behind AttentionTrust.