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Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace

Gurak, L. J. (1997). Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace. New Haven: Yale UP.

This book examines two case studies on online persuasion and privacy: the direct-mail marketing database Lotus MarketPlace and the U.S. government-proposed encryption standard Clipper Chip. Online protests against both (in 1990 against Lotus and in 1993 over Clipper) erupted in varying degrees, tactics, and outcomes. Common among the two protests, however, were issues of persuasion (how consumers, citizens, and advocacy groups used the Internet to disseminate information and influence opinion) and concerns over privacy resulting from the availability and capability of new technology.

What could be called the first online protest was launched against Lotus MarketPlace in 1990. Stemming from concerns of computer privacy activists, the bottom-up protest here used online technologies, such as email to forward form letters, where information and opinion were quickly and widely disseminated to an audience of concerned and active participants, who then contacted (barraged, actually) Lotus. Add to this, the fact that management at Lotus were initially unaware of the campaign’s concerns (and the campaign itself), and latterly, were unequipped to respond in an appropriate fashion to the criticisms and concerns of the protest. That is, Lotus did not recognize the Internet’s ethos, its own rhetorical character. The company’s responses did not match the language and protocol of online communication, and as result, seriously lacked persuasive clout. As a result, MarketPlace was quickly defeated; in fact, it was never launched. Tagged as a “victory? for consumer and computer advocacy, nevertheless, the manner in which the protest was waged perpetuated some inaccuracies and introduced privacy issues for some of those involved in the protest. For example, erroneous information was vastly disseminated (the type of information that the database would make available and the number of names included in the basic subscription); and a leading organizer was later concerned over the privacy of his identity in the study.

While the MarketPlace protest’s structure was bottom-up, the Clipper debate was started and organized by two public policy groups, driving the debate in a top-down fashion. One of the groups, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), provided an online petition available on their web site. The protest’s focus was somewhat managed by the information available on the website. In addition, the web site provided specific suggestions for acting on this information, such as filling out the petition and sending it to policymakers. The government, unlike Lotus, was aware of the online protest. Even so, they did not participate in the online debate. Yet, despite these protests and the government’s lack of participation, Clipper was enacted as a standard.

Employment of case study methodology here is useful in examining broad issues of people’s perceptions of privacy in emerging technologies and the use of such emerging technologies in persuasive techniques. The case studies outlined here provide a wide and deep context for the social and political forces behind the two protests, rather than a more focused approach from an experimental-based methodology. What this work may lack in generalizability, it makes up for in providing a springboard for subsequent study—particularly as the cases examined here are seminal in online persuasion and perceptions of privacy surrounding Internet technologies.