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Do we need a ‘do not track’ tool and will it help?

by Larry Magid

Imagine walking into a shopping mall and having a person follow you around, writing down every window you peer into and taking notes on each item of merchandise you look at in every store you visit. The next day, you decide to shop downtown but that person continues to follow you. At one point, you browse through a bookstore and the person is staring over your shoulder, writing down the name of each book you pick up and maybe even what section of the book you turn to.

Later that day, perhaps on your way to work or to pick up your dry cleaning, you see guys at the side of the road holding signs advertising the very products and types of stores you looked at earlier. When you stop at a light, one guy comes up to your car, trying to peddle a DVD based on one in the books you looked at earlier.

It’s a creepy scenario but is analogous to what happens to all of us daily as we surf the Web, thanks to third-party tracking cookies.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on a lot of factors, including how aggressive the marketers are and our own sense of privacy. It could be argued that it’s good because it enables advertisers to deliver messages that might actually interest you. If I happen to be in the market for a car, I’d much rather see ads for automobiles than for drugs designed to cure medical conditions I don’t have or, worse, make me wonder if maybe I do suffer from some of those ailments.

In some ways, I wish there was a way to opt in to “targeted advertising” when I watch TV news shows. If I must be bombarded with commercials, I would prefer they be about cool restaurants in my community, tech products that interest me or travel destinations I might someday want to visit rather than male enhancement drugs, incontinence cures and political attack ads.

Another argument in favor of behavioral advertising is that it brings in needed revenue for sites that offer news, useful information and free services. At a time when newspapers and other media companies are struggling to stay afloat and some are contemplating charging for online access to material that is now free, I suppose we should all at least consider the possible negative consequences of curtailing this source of revenue.

Still, like many Internet users, I find it creepy that my surfing habits have become a marketable commodity. I don’t mind seeing targeted ads like pitches for airlines or vacation packages when I use Google to search for the term “Hawaii,” but I don’t want a permanent record kept of the research I’ve done on medical conditions or the political websites I visit. Even if that information is “anonymized,” there is always the chance that it can be traced back to an IP address and, therefore, the household or even the person sitting at the computer.

As a partial remedy for online tracking, the Federal Trade Commission is proposing a “Do Not Track” tool that would enable consumers to tell marketers not to track them as they surf the Net. It could have a similar effect as the “Do Not Call” list that has cut down (but not eliminated) unwanted telemarketing calls. But unlike Do Not Call, there would be no list. Instead the FTC is proposing that browsers be equipped with a tool that would allow users to state their preferences and opt out of any tracking systems. (Also see Bianca Bosker’s post “Why The FTC’s Online Privacy Plan Won’t Stop The Information Free-For-All .”)

The FTC is also calling for a “framework” for all commercial entities that use consumer data. It would include making privacy notices “clearer, shorter and more standardized and giving consumers “reasonable access” to data they maintain about them.

When discussing the recommendations, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said that “at this point we are making recommendations for best practices,” and the FTC is “not calling for legislation yet.” But he added that “it is sort of clear that this report is also a recommendation for lawmakers.”

As if to punctuate that point, FTC Consumer Protection chief David Vladeck told a House committee on Thursday that “if Congress chooses to enact legislation,” it should “consider an option that lets consumers choose to opt out completely or to choose certain types of advertising they wish to receive or data they are willing to have collected about them.”

He also said that the mechanism should be simple and easy to use and that the FTC should be given the power to fine violators to “provide a strong incentive for companies to comply with any legal requirements, helping to deter future violations.”

If Congress does pass “Do Not Track” legislation, I sure hope legislators don’t exempt themselves and other politicians. I may be getting fewer calls from telemarketers, but I sure did get a lot of “robo-calls” from candidates before the November election.

This post is adapted from Larry Magid’s San Jose Mercury News column from Monday, December 6, 2010.

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