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Will People Buy Privacy?

Tickers in this article: FB MSFT

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- After almost two decades covering the issue of Internet privacy, I have become convinced it's one of those elite concerns that, like the mythical "swing voter," exist only in the abstract.

There are many times I would like a little privacy. Surely there are many times you want it. But we are far more likely to sacrifice privacy for some other value, such as security.

Don't believe me? Wait until your kid asks for some privacy. "To do what?" you are likely to ask. And then spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what the kid is hiding. Privacy for me but not for thee.

Still, Microsoft(MSFT) thinks there is money to be made in privacy, in the form of market share. That is why it is making privacy the default setting for its new browser, Internet Explorer 10. Microsoft is acting because Google(GOOG) Chrome is catching up to IE , passing it in terms of traffic.

This comes about a year after Firefox, the third major browser, began offering a "private browsing" setting. I really thought I'd use it more.

Google has a different attitude toward privacy. It believes you will give yours up if it provides valuable-enough services -- better search, for instance. They believe people prefer to be known. This is made clear in a privacy policy that, while controversial, has the benefit of being uniform and well-written.

Facebook doesn't know what to think about privacy. It depends on accessing its users' data for its business model, but needs users' buy-in to have anything to sell. Thus it is letting users "vote" on whether to get their old privacy policy back, responding to an Austrian law student's campaign called Europe vs. Facebook .

The irony here is that the motivation behind most companies' desire for raw Web data, whether from cookies or detailed Web histories, is bogus.

It's sought so that they can sell "implicit" ad targeting, so even if I'm reading a U.K. news site I might be fed an ad in Atlanta, or even if I'm reading a youth site I might be fed an ad for prostate cures.

The whole idea of this targeting, as opposed to "explicit" targeting, is that by knowing all about you it can target you with ads that provide a service, rather than act as billboards.

This idea has been around since the 1990s, when search engines such as Excite and AltaVista began building huge databases of Web history and promising advertisers they could raise their results through this kind of targeting.

They couldn't. Not because the technology doesn't work in the abstract. It's because when I'm reading a story about England I'm not thinking about Atlanta, and when I read a youth-oriented site I'm not worried about my prostate.