Privacy and the Internet – Are You Serious?

In the late 1990s private homes and some businesses in Australia had started to take advantage of the communication options the internet made available to them. During this early stage, there was a lot of talk in the media about how the internet would eventually change all our lives. However, people outside the information industry could not really envisage this and did not understand the full implications of on-line activity.
Since then we have become accustomed to a never-ending roll-out of new software, new websites and new ways to capture and display information. In 1998 no-one could have imagined, for example, that a product like Facebook could become such an integral part of everyday life. For most, the internet has been akin to early humans discovering the wheel. This event revolutionised human movement around the globe, and the internet has had the same effect on information.
Intrusive or Informational – It Depends on the Circumstances
For some, though, it has become intrusive, laying bare the private aspects of lives. It provides the mechanisms to display human behaviour in all its variety, from the heroic and compassionate to the idiotic and unfortunately the sadistic and perverted. What has become obvious is that once content finds its way onto the internet, it takes on a life of its own.
What is still not understood by many is that once a piece of information, a personal profile, a comment, a photograph or other content is displayed on a website where it can be accessed through a simple search, it is in the public domain permanently. Even if the content is removed by its originator, it may have already been viewed by multitudes and copied and saved by many.
Real Estate Advertising is Squarely in the Public Domain
There are many examples of how this can impact individuals and their privacy, but a good one everyone can relate to is the world of on-line real estate advertising. These days, people listing houses for sale expect their agents to run a professional, modern campaign to attract the right buyers and a large component of this includes internet advertising.
Homes appear on the websites of real estate agents using professional photos of every room in the home and any external features such as a pool, entertainment area, garages etc. All the details of the property are also listed including the address and the asking price. When the property is sold, most agencies update their
website indicating the property is sold and displaying the selling price.
In the heady atmosphere created by the sales process, neither the sellers nor the buyers think too much about having these details splashed across the world. In fact, they would be greatly disappointed with their real estate agent if this were not done. The interest generated by internet advertising of real estate properties is a big factor in finding buyers and making sales.
Total Control over Web Advertising Material is Almost Impossible
What is not immediately evident is the length of time this information remains in the public domain i.e. on the websites of not only the listing agency, but many others. Many real estate agencies list on multiple websites to offer their products to as many buyers as possible. While the individual agencies have control over their own web content, this may not be the case with the others they use.
Buyers complain that several years after they have settled on a property, it can still be found with an internet search, even after the selling agency has removed it from its own website. However, it is not the responsibility of the selling agent to act to remove links from other websites and some say so in their agreements. Some buyers have had success by contacting the other websites and asking for their home details to be removed, but there is nothing that can be done if they don’t oblige.
No Expectation of Privacy
There are two lessons to be learned here. One is that the internet has made formerly private information now very public and the second is that the real estate sales process involves internet advertising. As long as property buyers recognise and understand this, they should not be surprised if their nosey relatives interstate know what they paid for their home. The internet is here to stay and everyone must realise that once content is on-line, there can be no expectation of privacy.

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