Soul Prices Falling on E-Street

As we prepare for the new millennium, there’s a hot new market in people’s souls.

What’s more remarkable is that a reverse sort of Moore’s Law is applying to this trade. The price of your soul is actually getting cheaper.

Back at the beginning of the year, it seems, your soul was worth at least a PC. That was the idea behind Free-PC, now part of e-Machines.

You thought you were getting a free computer, but in fact you were becoming, in the words of the eMachines-FreePC merger announcement, part of “the first true permission-based, one-to-one targeted marketing network.” You gave them personal information, you let them follow you around online, and they sold this data (your soul) to other marketing companies, who might then send you spam you couldn’t refuse.

This was also the idea behind NetZero and its many imitators. Again, you give up your soul (your personal data, your habits, your purchase information, identifiable and tagged to you), only this time you get free ISP service. This capability is now being privately labeled, so members of vertical markets can sell their souls.

It figures that my hometown of Atlanta (the place that gave you Coca-Cola, “Gone with the Wind” AND Ted Turner) would be among the leaders in driving soul prices down. About four miles from my house is the head office of eTour, which delivers what it calls custom portals.

You put in your personal information – interests up-front as well as name and address – and you not only get a special page of links, but the chance to win “points” from the merchants who are taking this data from you. The more time you spend with eTour, the more points you can win, and the more of your soul they collect to pass around. (You already sold your soul in this way to the airlines, so what’s the big deal?)

It figures that a broadcaster would be behind the most mass-market approach to soul harvesting, CBS is behind iWon.Com, which bills itself as the search engine that pays you.

The company simply licensed the Inktomi search engine, began a series of daily contests (up to $10 million as a first prize on tax day) to get users, and began the harvest. You see, to enter you have to put in an ID number, and to get an ID number you have to put in your personal information, which they can then attach to your cookie and follow you anywhere. They then resell that information everywhere.

A lot of privacy advocates worry about business and government building “dossiers” on folks’ personal habits, which can then be resold (or used against you in a court of law). Their “solution” is to create a market in this personal information, one that users can control. The problem is that – while most of us scream bloody murder about this loss of privacy, claiming corporate America is demanding our souls – few of us really value that data very highly. We’ll trade in our soul for a PC, Internet access, “valuable prizes” or even a lottery ticket.

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