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Marissa Mayer: Privacy Fanatics Will Have a Less Awesome Life Online

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As we live more of our lives on the Internet, more of our personal data is being stored there. Just who should have access to that data -- and for what purpose -- is one of the most important and controversial issues facing the modern consumer. Yesterday, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer managed to tread a diplomatic line through that minefield.

Each individual is the owner of his or her personal information and ought to have the right to withhold it from companies, but if a person prefers to maintain the strictest standards of privacy on the Internet, then his or her experience online will be subpar, said Mayer, speaking at an Advertising Week event at the Times Center in New York City.

“It is almost undeniable at this point that the Web is better today if you let some sites personalize it for you,” she said. “People should have choice there, but that said, you will undoubtedly have a better experience online today if you let sites [you trust] know a little bit about who you are so that they can show you get the best possible content, show you the best possible messages.”

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Mayer telling Internet users that they will have a better experience online if they give over more data is akin to Huck Finn convincing Tom Sawyer that painting fences is fun. Conveniently, the more a site knows about its users, the more valuable it becomes to advertisers. Yahoo trolls your email correspondences, web activity and instant message conversations to find out what you like to do and how you spend your time. All of that information is pumped into computer-powered algorithms that personalize your online experience – and give them priceless insight.

Despite this, Mayer says people should have control over their personal information. “In my view, you own your data. And so you should be able to, for example, withdraw it from a source. You should be able to say, I don’t want my data stored here.” She cited features such as Ad Choices, which allows people to understand and control how much data Yahoo collects on them.

To some, keeping personal data is a blatant violation of privacy. Computer antivirus software maker John McAfee has gone so far as to say that these technological intrusions into our privacy degrade our humanity. “Google, or at least certain people within Google -- I will not mention names, because I am not a rude gentleman -- would like us to believe that if we have nothing to hide, we should not mind if everybody knows everything that we do,” McAfee said in August at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas. “We cannot have intrusions into our lives and still have freedom.”

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This battle over a person’s right to privacy in the digital age has landed a number of tech companies in some hot water recently. Back in May, the highest court in the European Union ruled that Google must delete "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" links in search results, effectively asking the search giant to “forget” certain events. In another incident that came to light this year, Facebook manipulated the information displayed in some 600,000 users’ feeds to determine whether there would be any effect on person’s psychological state. The big blue social media network didn’t seem all that contrite when word got out about its “experiment,” though it announced yesterday that it is changing the way it approaches future studies.

Some say a lack of privacy comes with the territory. In a blog post published in August, OkCupid co-founder and president Christian Rudder said, all Web users ought to understand that their personal information might very well be co-opted. “Guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work."

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Edition: December 2016

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