Now that Internet privacy bills have been introduced into both houses of Congress with the Obama administration and the Federal Trade Commission calling for some means of disclosure and control over how personal information is used on the Internet, forces opposed have already started to spread fear.
On March 16, for example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, comparing the protection of privacy in the Internet to the treatment of airline passengers by the Transportation Security Administration, is claiming that any such limit on the ability to track Internet use should be left to the marketplace. The CEI is simply spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt.
The facts are fairly simple. Many Internet commerce sites, and virtually all social networking sites track the activity of their users. Some track what happens when a user visits their site, some track everything a user does after visiting their site the first time, and many of those sites collect personal information in the process. Some of these sites, especially social networking sites, have had some serious security breaches in which users' private information was disclosed, and many of those users have not been fully aware that such information was collected by these sites or that it was shared with others.
Unfortunately, there is no significant effort by most sites to clearly define for everyday users what information is collected, how it's collected, or under what circumstances the collection will take place. Clearly it's no surprise if you visit an e-commerce site and buy a product or service that the site will be collecting your name, some financial information, perhaps your address, and of course the fact that you bought something. Many sites keep track of what you do when you visit them as a way to help point you to other products you may like, or to get an idea of what products they should make available in the future.
As long as such tracking is disclosed to the user, then I don't think anyone really minds. After all, if you buy a coffee maker on Amazon.com, then it's nice to know there are accessories for the coffee maker you might also like. This is good for the merchant, and it's good for the customers. But should Amazon also track me when I leave their site and visit Newegg.com? I'm sure they have an interest in what I might buy or even what items I may inquire about from a competitor, but is it their business? With all due respect to Amazon (where I am a frequent customer), the answer is no.