UNL student entrepreneur takes on online privacy

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April 4, 2011 - 7:00pm

Web tracking is what makes online advertising work. Companies that follow web users report data to advertisers on what individuals are reading, searching, watching, and buying. That information comes back to users in the form of personalized advertising on sites like Google and Facebook. But web tracking also raises questions about who has access to personal information. Calvin Pappas is a student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln who has taken that issue on as a web entrepreneur and privacy advocate. His website, SelectOut.org, helps users opt-out of web tracking. In this Signature Story, NET News' Grant Gerlock talks with Calvin Pappas about online tracking and web entrepreneurship in Nebraska.

GERLOCK: I went to SelectOut and you have a ticker on the front page. The number started going up and I found out I have 12 companies following me. Who's following me? What do they want to know? And why are tracking me?
PAPPAS: Yeah, so online tracking companies, really they kind of track you to power the online advertising industry. In 2010, online advertising was a $45 billion industry. People see advertisements on almost every page they go to, but what they don't realize is that these advertisements are powered by tracking and personalized for you. So as you go to different websites they might pick up information based on the content off the website, what website you visited the website from. So if you go to a YouTube video and it has a link to a Grooveshark playlist, then they know not only what music you listen to, but they also know the YouTube video that you watched before and the content of that. So they really put together a profile on you so you have the best advertising experience, for what they consider the best advertising experience and customize it for you.

GERLOCK: They want to be able to make better educated guesses about what I might want to buy.

GERLOCK: Are there situations where I might want them to be tracking me?
PAPPAS: Yeah, definitely. So SelectOut currently offers about 150 companies that you can opt out of. What I've noticed is if people opt-out of all of them they won't notice this immediately, but over time they'll notice a lot less personal experience on the Internet. Which at first people are all for that. But eventually instead of seeing a Husker football advertisement when they visit a page they might see a completely generic, like Rogaine (ad), like you're going bald let's help this out. And it could be a 12 year old kid that has a full head of hair and that this isn't relevant to them at all. And it's not only advertisements but it actually customizes some content on web pages, so as you log onto a web page you might not get the full experience of their showing you the best and most relevant information to you whether it's news or music or YouTube videos. But it's showing you totally generic what the general population likes.

GERLOCK: With SelectOut, what is it you hope to accomplish, I mean, opting-out - why should someone opt-out?
PAPPAS: Opting-out really comes down to what you are personally okay with people knowing about you. For some people they don't want companies tracking them for anything whether it's whether they like football or not or their personal e-mail address. Some people have more tolerant situations where they're allowing people to know certain information and some companies are okay with this. And so they might want to only opt-out of maybe half of the companies. And SelectOut kind of gives them an opportunity to go into each company individually and kind of learn about them and they can experience what each company is actually tracking and opt-out of them individually at that level.

GERLOCK: Is it difficult to have a company stop following me online? Is it like trying to get a telemarketer to quit calling in the evening?
PAPPAS: Generally, no. Really it's a one-click button and then you're kind of opted out. But what opting-out really does is most situations is it prevents them from using your information and sharing with other people, but they may still collect information. What opting-out does is drop a little cookie on your web browser which basically tells them don't share my information with anyone. And so they read that cookie every time they want to start tracking you, and then they say, okay we can't share this information with advertisers. But what they still do is collect more information in hopes that one day you might delete that cookie or that you might opt-into their network. Then they have huge database of information they can suddenly share.

GERLOCK: Cookie - we're talking about a piece of code that kind of gets left behind here and there and this is how the tracking is done.
PAPPAS: Yep. That's for the most part tracking is done through cookies. Although through current day with HTML5 there's new ways to do it and Flash there's new ways to do it and some companies are starting to utilize that and that's a whole new story into the privacy age.

GERLOCK: So new web languages make it easier to do tracking, but new browsers are supposed to make it easier to block trackers from following you around. Like the new Mozilla Firefox browser, a popular browser online is supposed to make it easier for you to click a button and quit having people follow you around.
PAPPAS: The team at Mozilla did a great job with their latest Firefox release, which was just released a couple weeks ago I think. And what it did was if you go into the settings there's a little check box that says, prevent people from tracking me. And if you click that it adds a little piece of code to web pages and then it asks the online tracking companies to stop tracking you.

GERLOCK: There's a bill in the House of Representatives that addresses the online privacy issue.
PAPPAS: Do Not Track.

GERLOCK: Do Not Track. Is that supposed to be like the Do Not Call list, something like that?
PAPPAS: Yeah, at a basic level it's exactly like do not call. For the general public that's what they see out of this. And what it does effectively is give power to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and what they can do is then set regulations on how companies can track you online, what information they can collect and how they can use it.

GERLOCK: What's it like working with the companies that are involved with the tracking? Are they pretty willing to divulge how they're doing this and how you can block them?
PAPPAS: Most people see tracking companies as those evil corporations you know that store all your information. But in reality they're just normal people just doing their business. They aren't actually able to see the information personally. What they do is they go about collecting the information and providing it to advertisers and most of the time it's completely encrypted. It's held on a database that even they can't access on a personal level. They can maybe get a long string of codes. They are willing to work with people like SelectOut.org because from there I give people a choice. The can opt-out of all the companies or they can go in and learn more about different companies. And I personally think once people start learning about companies they'll allow some companies to track them and block some companies. While working with SelectOut.org they may have a choice of continuing to track someone while with the FTC's proposal of Do Not Track it's sort of an all or nothing situation.

GERLOCK: Does SelectOut have competitors?
PAPPAS: SelectOut does have a few competitors and we all have unique features and unique identifying points. And so I'm good friends with some of my competitors and we really help kind of foster the community of online privacy.

GERLOCK: Who are some of your competitors?
PAPPAS: The biggest one right now is Network Advertising Initiative. They kind of help set the self regulation of online advertising and online tracking. And then PrivacyChoice.org founded by Jim Brock and if you go to that website you can opt-out of tracking online as well as go and view ways to opt-out of other networks and other sources. He writes a great blog post about online privacy.

GERLOCK: Is SelectOut something that could be financially good for you?

GERLOCK: How do you make money with SelectOut?
PAPPAS: Right now there's no money making in the process. I'm really worried about building it out as much as possible. But there's definitely revenue sources I'm working on building out and talking to people about.

GERLOCK: Would that be like some sort of membership for opting-out?
PAPPAS: No. I believe opting-out should always be free. It should always be a choice that people have if they want to and that's something that will always be free and available at SelectOut.org. I'm helping create different scripts and whatnot that people can use to create better privacy, helping people with their privacy policies, and really analyzing that information kind of provide accurate and easy to use information. Because the average privacy policy right now is about 2500 words long, and you know I love online privacy but even I won't read that. I've went through and read many of them but I'm kind of done with that and I want to bring it down to the average person's level so they can go and know if someone's going to collect their private information, their personal information, if they're going to sell that information to other people and really just provide it in an easy to use way.

GERLOCK: How is it this really became something you wanted to devote a lot of time to?
PAPPAS: I've always had a strong passion in government and politics. My Dad was in the Nebraska legislature a while back, so I kind of grew up with this whole side of me. But growing up in the technology age I learned quickly, you know I was on Facebook the first year it came out. I was on all these other sites. I started learning programming back in 8th grade and kind of decided to put them both together - my true loves together - and noticed that Do Not Track was kind of gaining a little bit of momentum but online privacy was a big industry that powers the advertising industry as well as several other aspects. Nobody's really kind of tapped into it fully and so I saw big potential there and went full force with it.

GERLOCK: You're how old, 19?
PAPPAS: I'm 19.

GERLOCK: And second year at UNL?
PAPPAS: That's correct.

GERLOCK: So what's ahead for you and SelectOut? Do you have a future in Nebraska do you think to pursue this? Would you have to leave the state and go somewhere else?
PAPPAS: Right now I want to keep this in Nebraska. I truly love the state and I think it's a great place that could create quite the innovations and I want to help build a mini Silicon Valley but here in the Midwest and I think this is a great location for that to be at. Right now it's a little bit hard to do that. I'm working with companies on the coasts and that's really the only people I'm working with right now, and politicians and lawyers. But eventually I want to get to the point where Nebraska is the perfect place for this.

GERLOCK: For someone from your perspective, a young entrepreneur in Nebraska, do you see the opportunities in this state?
PAPPAS: Yeah. The opportunities are great in this state, they're just kind of hidden. And I think that's something we need to work on is bringing attention to all the companies out here, all the innovation, all the young entrepreneurs, and the older entrepreneurs that are really bringing great companies into Nebraska but they're not being well heard of in the local community. That's something that really needs to be worked on and really built out.

GERLOCK: What are some Nebraska companies that people may not be aware of?
PAPPAS: Hudl is one of them that I'm really passionate about and I really like. It's a group of people formerly from the Raikes program at the University of Nebraska and they created this service that allows coaches to put the entire playbook and put video of plays onto the Internet and really share with their players. They can draw outlines of different plays and really instantly communicate with their players whether they're in the same locker room or whether they're at home and across the country. And this is being used at high school, at college, and on the professional level. And then another one is Roundscapes, which was created by another former University of Nebraska student. What it does is they create 3-D virtual environments of luxury places as well as just everywhere. They went downtown and created 3-D virtual tours of inside of buildings as well as outside. So take Google Maps and their Street Views, but take that into the entire perspective of going into the actual store location. You can view their menu board and view it entirely and really be more virtual and interactive with that.

GERLOCK: Thanks very much for coming in.
PAPPAS: Thank you.



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