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.
Don’t Believe the Phony Scare Tactics
Now, understand that I have no indication that Amazon engages in such activity, but there are sites that do. Users of the Internet should have the ability to prevent this without having to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent such tracking. Right now the major browser makers are in the process of incorporating a means to block browser tracking, but in the case of Firefox, for example, the “Do Not Follow” function depends on the cooperation of the Website. While respected e-commerce sites will likely comply, there are plenty of sites out there that won’t.
The problem, which groups such as the CEI seem to miss, is that competition in the marketplace only works when all sides to the transaction are fully informed. In the case of much tracking takes place, that doesn’t happen. Consumers simply have no good way to know whether a site is tracking them or not.
Fortunately, there are methods that can reduce tracking, such as turning off cookies in your browser, but those also disable useful features on many sites and in fact there are many sites for which the use of such security measures makes the site unusable. So there’s a powerful incentive for consumers to turn off such security measures and thus open themselves up to tracking.
The current bill introduced in the House of Representatives a few days ago, called the “Do Not Track Me Online Act,” by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), would require companies to honor opt-out requests and it would require disclosure of privacy and tracking policies, and require that companies do what their privacy policies promise. The bill exempts smaller businesses and has no impact on companies that don’t collect personal information.
The claims by advertising groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau that a Do Not Track bill would require a change in the basic architecture of the Internet are pure hogwash. The Internet is not architected around advertising one way or the other. Likewise the claims by the CEI that this is somehow related to movement to a national ID card or the TSA’s body scanners are misguided scare tactics that are clearly aimed at lawmakers with a tenuous grasp on the technology.
Regardless of the approach to keep tracking of Internet activity under control, and regardless of the approach to protecting personal information that’s ultimately brought to bear on Internet providers that overstep their customers’ interests, the need for protection is there.