Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, writing in U.S. News & World Report this week, offers one of the clearest explanations I've seen of why consumers need a Do Not Track Me function to protect their privacy as they surf the Web.
I think the article also clearly demonstrates that support for the idea is growing in Washington and that we are likely to see movement on the issue in the new Congress. Here's the chairman's explanation of why Do Not Track rules matter:
"Let's say I stop at the mall to pick up a new jacket. As I browse through the stores, I am followed by a man with a walkie-talkie, reporting on every item I look at and passing that information to the other stores in the mall. By the time I reach the third floor, out of a store pops a salesperson, holding exactly the madras jacket I want, in the red-and-yellow plaid I favor as well as in my size.
"Disconcerting? A little. Convenient? Absolutely. I buy the jacket.
"But what if the man with the walkie-talkie sells information about my shopping behavior to my health insurer, who raises my rates based on my purchase of a deep-fat fryer? Or to my bank, which turns down my refinancing application after I buy the book The Winner's Guide to Casino Gambling?
"As Americans trade mall lines for shopping online, our browsing is increasingly tracked—not by a hypothetical man with a walkie-talkie, but by a host of invisible data catchers that report your online clicks to marketing firms that, in turn, sell an astonishingly complete profile of your cyber behavior. The buyers are usually companies that target Internet advertising to your particular interests. Once you enter cyberspace, your private information—often without your consent or even knowledge—becomes a commodity out of your control.
"At the Federal Trade Commission, we want you to get that control back..."
Where I differ with the chairman is over his optimism that Do Not Track can be implemented on a self-regulatory basis. He apparently sees the threat of Congressional action as a stick to goad the likes of Google and Microsoft to do the right thing. He writes:
"About 85 percent of consumers surveyed by Gallup have said that they want to be able to choose whether to be tracked as they surf. If companies don't step up to give consumers more choice, Congress may mandate Do Not Track. Privacy is a bipartisan concern, and we've seen strong support for more consumer choice on both sides of the aisle."
Companies have repeated demonstrated that self regulation does not work. Chairman Leibowitz can use the bully pulpit as much as he wants, but it's clear to me that successful Do Not Track Rules will require legislation. He should be asking for legislative authority now.
The online industry is doing everything it can to thwart Do Not Track Me rules. Writing in the same edition of U.S. News The Interactive Advertising Bureau's Michael Zaneis claims Do Not Track rules "would put a stop to the Internet as we know it."
The IAB is funded by the likes of Google and Microsoft Advertising. Ironically Microsoft has announced it will offer a a Do Not Track feature as part of the next version of its Internet Explorer browser software, IE 9, yet Zaneis claims in his over-the-top diatribe that "upon further inspection, this looks less like a viable Do Not Track mechanism and more like a censorship tool."
What is it about trade association hacks that makes them more doctrinaire and unrealistically out-of-touch than the companies they claim to represent?
I'm glad to say that while Leibowitz is more optimistic about not needing Congressional action than I am, he certainly isn't buying the tripe being peddled by Zaneis:
"At the FTC, we don't buy the argument that a vital online marketplace has to be based on unauthorized Web snooping. We also believe, as do most American businesses, that no company loses by respecting the wishes of its customers. Do Not Track will allow the Internet to continue to thrive while protecting our basic right to privacy when we travel in cyberspace."