Tough Love on Tech

In the dim iridescent glow of millions of LCD screens, on millions of electronic devices, stashed in homes or clutched in hands, there are millions of people basking in a kind of giddy, gadget afterglow — the fallout of a prosperous holiday season.

Now wake up. It's time for some tough love in the consumer technology world.

As these modern electronic marvels continue to shrink to portable, personalized de facto human appendages, hard-wired in our everyday routines, it is all too easy to forget who should be in charge of your online experience — it's you.

With every click of a mouse, every text message, every Web site surfed, in search of that last available anything, you are making choices about whether to share personal information and with whom, and which content to access or make available to your children. In doing so you are no more or less exposed than when you're at the mall or standing at the ATM or walking to your car alone at night.

Although we routinely secure our wallets in crowded places and shield the ATM screen from prying eyes, we blithely intermingle our personal, private information with the seductive ease of an electronic gadget, never giving a second thought about who is collecting it. We fail to teach our children how to protect themselves online or use the myriad tools available to shield them from inappropriate content.

The genius of the Internet is that it was designed without gatekeepers. All of the power rests at the ends of the network, with us, the users. That's what allows us all to be innovators, creators and entrepreneurs. It's also what allows bad actors to launch viruses, spyware and scams, and is fertile ground for a breadth of content that sometimes pushes the envelope of decency.

While cyberspace can be daunting, failure to take advantage of the tools and resources available to you to manage your online experience is simply foolish. "User empowerment," isn't just a clever phrase, it's a responsibility that cybercitizens need to take seriously. Yes, taking the time to protect yourself may be annoying, and for the least tech savvy among us, may seem overwhelming.

Here are three first steps — among a host of others — to take before you break that New Year's resolution:

Your Browser Gives You Choices

It's as serious an application as your word processor, maybe more so. But how much do you know about what's "under the hood" of that browser? It's time to learn. Learn how to set the various content parameters, find out how to keep your browser from storing "cookies," those little bits of code that Web sites use to collect bits and pieces of your personal life. Make your browser's "preference" feature your best friend.

Privacy Protection Is All on You

That means you're going to have to read the privacy policies of the Web sites you visit. Just because a Web site has something called a "privacy policy" doesn't mean you are automatically protected against collection of your personal information. In fact, that "privacy" policy may just say that the Web site owns every scrap of info they can glean from you and that it can be sold in a heartbeat, but you'll never know unless you take the time to read it.

Learn about "opt in" and "opt out" policies and then use them. And wise up about e-mail; it's not "just like paper mail, only faster." Unlike the letters piling up on your desk, your e-mail is being stored out there "in the cloud" where your right to privacy is not strongly protected. Just because you can store your e-mail forever, doesn't mean you should.

Guide Your Children's Journey in Cyberspace

Make sure your children are educated about how to have a safe Internet experience and check out the content management technologies provided by your ISP. If you want to limit where your children go online, block inappropriate content or monitor their Internet use, the tools provided by your ISP or in the marketplace can offer another layer of protection.

Remember, too, that none of this happens in a vacuum. Though cliched, the term "global village" is apt. And for all our sophistication, for all our technological progress, the global village is still very young, very malleable, in both policy and process. The moment you switch on any of your gadgets you become a participant; just make sure you're participating on your own terms.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.