September 1997

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You Never Surf Alone

by Dirk vom Lehn

In its early days, the popularity of the World Wide Web (WWW) was based on users, who opened up homepages to deliberately publish information on themselves and on topics of their interests. Thus, and by the implementation of a system of links between web-sites, the observer perceived, that a medium has become available, that--in the near future--could connect all sorts of different information resources world-wide.

Then, business enterprises began to consider the Net1 as future global marketplace, and they opened virtual shops and virtual banks. The relations between seller and buyer that have developed on the Net are completely depersonalized and only rely on electronic means that make economic exchange on the Net possible. Therefore, information about customers needs and desires, that in the real world is investigated by market researchers, can be generated by mere electronic means in the virtual world. Browsers, that are currently available, allow site-owners not only to collect information about the surfers computer system, but also information about which sites the surfer has just come from and where (s)he leaves to.

The Internet has also become an object of sociological and psychological research. Online-behavior has been studied, in order to find out, how people interact on the Net, and how net-culture is produced by them. These projects demand the application of research methods such as participant observation, digitized questionnaires, or electronic means which enable areas of the Net to be automatically scanned.

The intrusion of institutions and organisations into the free flow of information, as the netizens themselves have described the exchange of messages on the Net, has triggered a discussion about privacy of individuals who use the facilities offered on the Net. Questions are raised concerning whether or not companies should be allowed to collect and use data about individuals for business purposes at all. It is also argued, that companies should be forbidden to pass on collected information to third parties. In regard to scientific research on the Net, ethical issues are brought up and discussed by scientists themselves.2 Up to what degree should social scientists be allowed to make use of personal data collected on the Net, and how can misuse of data be prevented?

As far as I am informed, research studies covering users awareness of privacy violations, have rarely been undertaken. However, many users will have received junk mail ("Easy Money! $50000 per week.") in their personal mailbox, and some of them will have asked themselves, where the sender got their email address from. Personal information on netizens is collected for many purposes: some data are passed on to third parties, some data are combinated with information collected by other means (e.g. Credit Card transactions), and some data are processed and recombinated for purposes we do not know.3 On the other hand, electronic means that empower users, and that enable them to prevent others to follow them on their way through the web, can hardly be found.

In sum, the collection of data and information on the Internet is a crucial issue for the future of this innovative medium. It will become very important for the Nets development, for an evolving online-business and for an emerging net culture, whether mediating mechanisms can be found, that, at the same time:

  • enable users to conserve their privacy,

  • maintain possibilities for enterprises to collect information about their (potential) customers and

  • do not prevent social scientists to explore the Net as cultural phenomenon.

It would go beyond the scope of this issue of CMC Magazine to cover all concerns on Data and Information Collection on the Net. The authors contributing to this issue are well aware of the fact, that *you never surf alone*. However, they differ in the taken perspective on the matter:

The issue, firstly, starts with [] Solveig Singleton's article that is concerned with the relation between privacy, (online-)business purposes and free speech. [] Justin Boyan introduces his Anonymizer system and discusses future concerns on privacy on the web; and [] Sabine Helmers describes the function the anonymous remailer has had until its termination by its operator. And finally, [] Jennifer Gold and Denise Ethier give their perspective on data collection about users behaviour on the web. Hereby, they not only describe their motivations for doing research on the Net, but they also discuss the problematic of the use of collected data that are related to individuals.


  1. In this editorial, I have not differentiated between Net and Web.

  2. See, in particular, The Information Society, Vol. 12, 2 (1996).

  3. In their book Data Trash. The theory of the virtual class. Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein study the cultural and politcal impact of this development. See also contributions of these authors and others in CTheory.

Dirk vom Lehn ( is a PhD research student at the Centre for Work, Interaction and Technology at the University of Nottingham (England). He currently works on visitor behavior in museums and interaction in virtual environments.

Copyright © 1997 by Dirk vom Lehn. All Rights Reserved.

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