I got an email today pointing me to this story in Time magazine, Trying to Escape the Surveillance State, where a journalist tries to live for a month without his privacy being impinged. It led to a conversation about privacy and whether or not there is privacy on the Internet or will people pay the cost for the amount of personal information that they freely give to various sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.
I argue that there is privacy on the Internet depending on the choices you make. In most cases an online transaction be that purchasing something online, joining a social network or sending emails has privacy as an element built into the cost of that transaction. In order to buy those goods you surrender your privacy surrounding your personal details to receive those goods, you also probably use a credit card which means that your transactions are noted by your credit card issuer and finally sites may keep track of your activity to suggest recommended goods on your next visit. This is no different from the physical world where you purchase items by credit card and perhaps use a loyalty card in the store.
Joining a social network, e.g. Linkedin, also has its privacy transaction costs. You want the benefits of a social network then you need to surrender your personal details to become part of that network. In real life you join social clubs, meet friends in public places where you also trade part of your privacy to take part in the group.
Some will argue that governments monitoring of Internet usage is a breach of privacy, for example your Internet browsing and email history is retained under the EU Data Retention Directive and that your ISP knows all your activity from their system logs recently highlight by the Phorm controversy in the UK.
This is true but you can still take measures to protect your privacy online using various techniques such as anonymous proxies, never using your real name online, never purchasing items online and not joining any social networks or forums.
You can control your privacy on the web, the question needs to be asked, at what cost?