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Dear Google: Do Not Track Me

In the same vein as the popular Do
Not Call list, privacy advocates would like a Do Not Track that would
allow people to opt out of having their online behavior monitored.

Most consumers know well this fundamental axiom of advertising: Read a
women’s magazine, and you’ll likely get ads for beauty care; watch the
Super Bowl, and you’ll probably see ads hawking beer. Targeted
advertising makes assumptions about you because, generally speaking, the
Elle reader and the NFL fan buy different things.

Over the last few years, however, this strategy has shifted subtly on
the Web. Today, you’ll get that same beer ad on ESPN.com. But browse
next to The New York Times, and it will likely go there with you.

Search engines and online ad networks (which are sometimes one and the same) have been tracking you on the Internet.

As more consumers and privacy advocates realize this, there’s a
growing push for Congress to do something about it in the model of one
of the most popular pieces of legislation ever — the Do Not Call list.
What if, just as you can opt your phone number out of intrusive
telemarketing rolls, your computer could opt out of Google’s invisible
tracking?

The movement is premised on the idea that certain kinds of
information — your surfing habits online — belong to you in the same way
your computer does.

“That’s kind of a fundamental human right,” argued John Simpson, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog. “The books that people have been taking out of the library are not something that’s shared, and librarians have fought to maintain that.
Generally, you can’t go in and say, ‘What’s my wife been reading on her
library card? What’s my son been reading on our library card?’ It’s
private.

“In the same way, the Internet is a great source of information, and
people ought to be able to consider that their activity online is
private in the same way. The fact of the matter is that it’s not right
now.”

Right now, The New York Times leaves cookies on your computer that
allow the site to remember your login preferences when you return the
next day. But it also drops third-party cookies that allow its ad networks to track you as you move on to other sites.

As a result, online advertising has grown much more sophisticated.
Now, you won’t just see an ad related to the content you’re perusing;
you’ll see an ad, regardless of content, informed by your behavior.

“And I think that’s much more intrusive,” Simpson said. Especially given that most people don’t realize it’s going on.

Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a bill in the House earlier this summer, and the Federal Trade Commission is currently studying the issue.

Do Not Track would be technologically more complicated than Do Not
Call. For starters, there wouldn’t exactly be a list. More likely, you
would have the option of opting into a mechanism that would leave a
cookie on your computer preventing other sites from leaving their
cookies tracking you.

Today, some online ad networks voluntarily let you opt out of behavioral advertising. But this doesn’t mean they’ve stopped peering over your keyboard.

“The main issue with implementing such a mechanism — in addition to
the technology issues — is this: If a consumer makes use of Do Not
Track, whether it’s a list or something else, is that going to stop the
consumer from being tracked?” asked Christopher Soghoian,
a security and privacy researcher. “Or is it merely going to stop them
from seeing ads based on the tracking that will continue to occur?”

Soghoian, who previously worked in the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection,
says a better option would be to embed Do Not Track into a browser
header. But this would require browser vendors to help develop the
technology that today opposes their own interests (most major browsers
derive revenue from ad networks).

Do Not Track would essentially upend the current business model on the Internet, where browsers, ad networks and publishers — from The New York Times to the personal blog with banner ads — make money off behavioral insights that were never possible through print or television.

“Perhaps that business model is an inappropriate business model,” Simpson countered.

Besides, Soghoian points out, all these companies were making ad
money the old-fashioned way before they started following consumers
around the Web.

“It’s not like a Do Not Track mechanism would force the industry to
go back to the Internet as it was in 1990,” he said. “This would simply
ensure that, for those consumers who chose to not be tracked,
publishers would have to go back to the way they made money three years
ago.”