Privacy becomes a selling point for Web companies

Abine Inc. specializes in controlling data privacy online.
Abine Inc. specializes in controlling data privacy online.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012/Globe Staff

SAN FRANCISCO — Privacy is no longer just a regulatory headache. Increasingly, Internet companies are egging each other on to prove to consumers that their data are safe and in their control.

In some instances, established companies are trying to gain market advantage by casting themselves as more privacy-friendly than their rivals. For example, Mozilla, an underdog in the browser market, suggested last week that it would allow its users to disable third-party tracking software altogether.

At the same time, Web platform companies are setting limits on other companies with which they do business. Last year, for instance, Apple began requiring applications in its operating system to get permission from users before tracking their location or peering into calendars and contacts stored on an iPhone. Also, a host of companies big and small are offering a variety of privacy tools, ranging from ways to encode Facebook posts to ways to secure personal data stored in the cloud.

During a panel at the RSA Conference, a security-focused industry gathering here last week, Brendon Lynch, the chief privacy officer at Microsoft, declared that companies like his had come to appreciate the ''market forces at play with privacy.''


''It's not just privacy advocates and regulators pushing,'' Lynch said. ''Increasingly, people are concerned more about privacy as technology intersects their life.''

That statement might sound somewhat rich to those who recall Microsoft's troubles 10 years ago with European regulators. At that time, it was compelled to make substantial changes in how its online login system, .Net Passport, stored addresses, ages, and other personal details.

Nonetheless, the Redmond, Wash.-based company earlier this year signaled its sensitivity to user privacy by turning on, in the default setting, an antitracking signal in its latest Internet­ Explorer browser.

Microsoft also took aim at Google with a marketing campaign declaring that consumers were being ''scroogled'' with targeted advertisements based on their e-mails and search histories. Lynch's counterpart at Google, Keith Enright, called that marketing campaign ''intellectually dishonest.'' At the RSA Conference, Enright said Google took pains to secure consumer information and simplify privacy settings.


Joel R. Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School, said Microsoft had made a 180-degree turn in emphasizing consumer data protection.

''You're seeing more companies trying to do that — develop privacy protecting services,'' said Reidenberg, whose Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham has received donations from both Microsoft and Google. ''Platforms recognize they have to deal with privacy. They're looking at how they can be competitive.''

''What does privacy mean?'' Facebook's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, asked at the RSA Conference. ''It's understanding what happens to your data and having the ability to control it.''

That very imperative seems to be buoying a cottage industry of privacy start-ups.

A Boston company, Abine, is testing what is effectively the opposite of a Facebook single sign-in for the Web. Instead of exposing your Facebook login credentials to dozens of websites, the company offers a proxy e-mail address or phone number for every transaction. You sign in with the e-mail address and a password you remember; Abine creates one address for an e-commerce site you visit, another for a news site, another for a dating site.