Following up on last week’s link to the Atlantic article about on-line advertising, a few thoughts about Internet privacy in general.

As we spend more-and-more time online, more-and-more people are airing concerns about what happens to the bread crumbs of data we leave in our wake. It seems like every week or so brings a new ‘scandal’ regarding how some online services provider handles user data.

Some people believe that no personal information of any kind should be logged and archived when they visit a website. Others believe that the exchange of demographic information for content is a vital part of the (mostly) free Internet.

I tend to agree with that second view, but I do wish we had more control over our online data records. I use some tools to help limit how much information I’m leaving behind, although I know there is no fool-proof method to do so. And the content providers are almost always going to be a step ahead of even the most technologically adept users. So even when we think we’re masking our Internet travels, the fact is we’re still being tracked in some manner.

I have, though, distanced myself a bit from two major online services recently. I used to run all my email through Gmail, since it is so great at archiving mass amounts of messages without gobbling up hard drive space. But, each time there was another story about how Google was using the information they get from our data, my enthusiasm for the service waned.

I don’t recall what the final straw was, but over a year ago I stopped routing any of my email through Google and kept it on domain space I owned. Plus, to get my personal domains to work with Gmail, there were always some workarounds that had to be navigated. It wasn’t just a matter of privacy, but also of convenience, that caused me to stop having Gmail manage all my messages.

Facebook is the other service I’ve turned away from. I still have an account, and I log in every now-and-then to read through updates. But lately I’ve been getting most of my Facebook news from my wife. I don’t believe I’ve posted an update since the holidays. I may still upload a picture from time-to-time, but I’ve moved back to sharing information either here on my blog or directly via email. I believe it was the revelation that Facebook was tracking user activity even after they had logged out of their account that pushed me away from them. Despite their assurances that nothing nefarious was being done with that data, that was a few notches too many down the creepy scale for me.

Which is a shame, as Facebook has become such an important tool to connect with others. Even for people I talk to frequently, Facebook is a great way to see pictures of their travels and families, news of careers and activities, and a thousand other tidbits that keep us ever-so-gently in touch.

I don’t think either Google or Facebook are evil. I haven’t deleted my Facebook account and still use some Google services, notably the Chrome browser. But I am uncomfortable with how their use of our data seems to be constantly expanding. Many have pointed this out, but it’s useful to remember that you are not Google or Facebook’s customers: advertisers are their customers. You, and your data, are their product.

It is important to understand that you are giving something up when you use these services. There is a cost, even if you’re not paying an annual fee. In order to maximize the return for their advertisers, Google, Facebook, etc. are always going to seek more information about you. When you realize that, and monitor changes to their terms of service, you can make an informed decision about if and when they’ve gone too far for your comfort.