The Internet economy is held together by a mix of baling wire, trust and optimism that mirrors the offline world in many ways. Just like we believe that doctors won't betray us to our employers or that brokers will give us the best prices on our stock trades, we believe that online marketers won't sell our actual names along with our demographic information. We accept terms on Web sites without reading them because in any case we have no choice other than to not use the Internet, and we trust most online entities to do what's in their long-term interest, which is to behave honorably.
That trust is the basis for almost all free content and is what leads to the serendipitous browsing without which the Internet would be nothing but a directed shopping destination.
We've given online marketers free rein for years, and now they have the goods on us.
For decades, data companies like Experian and Acxiom have compiled reams of information on every American: Acxiom estimates it has 1,500 pieces of data on every American, based on information from warranty cards, bridal and birth registries, magazine subscriptions, public records and even dog registrations with the American Kennel Club.
Patrick Williams, publisher of Worth magazine, told the New York Times that Acxiom is "the scariest data research company around - they know far too much."
So what happens when those companies betray our trust? The first time, CEOs will resign, companies will re-brand, Congressional hearings will be held, and, as with day trading in the aftermath of WorldCom and other financial scandals, things will get back to normal in very short order.
How about the second time? People won't give up the Internet -- we've come to depend on it for news, for storing our photos, keeping us in touch with our friends, and many other things besides. But what will happen is that we'll be willing to embrace an entirely new business model that promises to protect us from marketing thuggery.
I can easily imagine a scenario where we banish cookies from our hard drives and pay the likes of an AOL, a Comcast or other carrier or ISP a monthly subscription fee giving us access to the content we want; the content providers would be paid royalties based on aggregate usage (yes, a walled garden cum clearinghouse).
There would still be a "free" Internet for those of us who can't afford the protection of a walled garden -- a wild and woolly Internet where every site throws up pop-up ads or phishes for information despite ever-more-intrusive government regulations, where predators lurk behind every link like knife-wielding hoodlums in a Tim Burton version of Batman.
It may not come down exactly that way, but the day is coming when we'll discover that a key player in the online ecosystem has betrayed the public trust so profoundly that we have to find another way to use the Internet. It won't be pretty, and we'll look back fondly upon these times as the good old days when the Internet was free.