Earlier today, I reported on the FCC’s attempt to extend its regulatory reach over the internet with net neutrality regulation. The FCC is not alone in its pursuits to bring the internet within the regulatory reigns of Uncle Sam. The FTC is also interested in getting involved.
FTC regulators suggest that consumers are largely unaware of the fact that advertising companies track their online behavior in order to expose them to more targeted advertising. Even if they are aware of it, many, especially younger people, lack concern for privacy. So, the government is going to step up to protect them from targeted online advertising.
Proponents suggest that Do-Not-Track could work similarly as Do-not-Call, which is celebrated for providing consumers with much needed relief from advertising calls during dinner. But the analogy doesn’t work.
Do-Not-Call is much simpler to administrate. Violations are obvious and marketing callers can easily identify whom not to call. If I’m on the list, don’t call me. Online tracking is a different story, and by far, less obnoxious than dinner phone calls. In fact, many people find targeted advertising a convenient way to be exposed to topics and products that interest them most. Those who are concerned with being tracked, have various options to rid their computers of cookies or choose web browsers that don’t allow tracking.
Julian Sanchez explains that do-not-track legislation may only provide a false sense of security which could be make consumers worse off:
What’s not so simple-as the FTC official who testified at last week’s hearing acknowledged-is determining exactly what “tracking” means, who is obligated to listen to the Do Not Track request, and what compliance with it entails. The appeal of a legally enforceable Do Not Track header is that it targets a functional class of behavior rather than any particular technological tracking mechanism, with the goal of ending the “arms race” that characterizes individual efforts by users to safeguard their privacy. So as users learn that they can delete tracking cookies, or block cookies from ad networks using their browser’s privacy settings, the advertisers turn to Flash cookies. When users figure that out, the trackers turn to system fingerprinting or history sniffing. How much simpler for users to simply be able to know they can demand not to be tracked without worrying about whether they’ve anticipated the latest clever method.
If the sense of security provided by Do Not Track therefore proves to be largely illusory, a more openly acknowledged arms race might be preferable.
In light of the legislative proposal to mandate Do-Not-Track options, Microsoft and Firefox are already responding with their own versions of blanket do-no-track options, suggesting that they’ll heed the FTC’s call to self-regulate. Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, has this to offer:
“Self-regulation” is the strange moniker given to agreements between industry and regulators, both content to divide up the business behavioral pie without actually responding to the desires of consumers. A “do not track” system would deceive consumers into believing their privacy is protected when they are actually only insulated from the rarefied discomfort of receiving accurately targeted marketing.
The best way for consumers to obtain more privacy on the web is to demand privacy by exercising already existing options to make their preferences clear. Do-not-track legislation proposed by the FTC may be good for luring consumers into a false sense of privacy, but real privacy protections are more likely to come from the private sector. The real danger is that government calls for do-not-track, coupled with government-approved self-regulation by industry, succeed at instilling a false sense of privacy in internet users. Competition among already existing and newly emerging web browsers to provide better privacy protections to their consumers may then be halted to the detriment of internet users concerned with real privacy.