Should The Government Set Up A "Do-Not-Track" List?

One of the most popular sentiments expressed by readers on our blog is “be a smart consumer.” Now two privacy advocacy organizations are calling for the creation of a “do-not-track” list that would protect registered users from online data collection. They argue that a list is needed because too many consumers won’t or can’t understand the methods behind online tracking. To illustrate, one of the organizations “pointed to a 2005 University of Pennsylvania survey in which only 25 percent of respondents knew that a Web site having a privacy policy doesn’t guarantee that the site refrains from sharing customers’ information with companies.” But a do-not-track list is overkill, and a fearful reaction against emerging technologies.

If such a list became popular, would it reduce the ad model of the web to the blind shotgun blasts of TV advertising? That would suck—personally, if I’m going to see an ad, I want it to be about something that interests me. I don’t like the idea of a third-party harvesting my data and packaging it with other users’ data to profit from it, but I do think targeted advertising is an improvement over traditional advertising. Besides, how would such a list work with the rapidly evolving technologies used for data tracking? NebuAd’s deep-packet-sniffing collects lots of detailed info but doesn’t connect it directly to an ISP customer’s account—would that be permissible?

Being a smart consumer is deeply relevant to this issue. Ultimately, the individual consumer has to understand the basics of online advertising before choosing to engage in any online behavior. Telemarketing, and to a lesser extent junk mail, take public info that by necessity has to be public (telephone numbers and addresses, for example), then exploits that info to contact you without your permission. When you’re online, however, you’re leaving a data trail behind you like heat exhaust, and anyone who knows how to read it can gain information on you. But you can also learn to reduce that data trail, or cloak it, or even disguise it as a different data trail. It’s an arms race, but then everything in the information age is.

When companies try to take control of your data trail from you—like what Facebook did with its Beacon program—then we have a real problem; suddenly your self-protection schemes no longer work and you’re left open to privacy loss. So far the public has reacted swiftly and decisively against such overreaching stunts.

My hope is that the public side of the market remains a more efficient way of dealing with company misbehavior—and that Average Web User X gets over his technophobia (or more likely plain disinterest) and learns the basics of online privacy if he values his part in the demographic data pool so much.

“Privacy Advocates: Consumer Education Isn’t Enough” [PC World]

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“UK advertising-tech fight shows complexity of privacy battle” [Associated Press]
(Photo: Getty)