Michael Lerner

Wednesday - Dec 8, 2010

Do Not TrackBeing online is a curious experience. On one hand, it feels totally anonymous, just you and your computer, an obedient object that responds to your every command. On the other hand, almost all your online activity is recorded–every website you visit, every link you click and a whole lot more. For details about how this works, read “Controlling Your Clickstream.”

I’ve blogged about online privacy and how technology is rapidly eroding that increasingly quaint concept. Now the Federal Trade Commission is getting into the act.

Just as Americans can sign up for a Do Not Call list that prevents telemarketers from making pesky dinnertime phone calls, the FTC is proposing Do Not Track, a way to prevent online marketers from collecting personal data about you.

Needless to say, the proposal is controversial. Internet companies claim that this will stymie ecommerce by preventing them from tailoring ads targeted to your interests. There is some logic to this argument. If you’re a guy, you’re probably not interested in seeing ads for women’s fashion accessories. If advertising is the price to be paid for free online content, then the ads should at least be relevant. Fair enough.

But do you really want all of your online activity recorded, sliced, diced, sold and used as a weapon to get you to buy more stuff? I know I don’t.

The other day I was browsing online for a file cabinet. I visited a few sites like Office Depot, Target, Ikea, and Overstock, checking out the options. Then I went to Hotmail. Alongside my e-mail was a banner ad for a file cabinet. It was creepy. I felt like someone was spying on me. I suppose someone was and I didn’t like it. Nor do the 80% of Americans that told Consumer Watchdog they want laws to protect their online privacy.

At this point it’s not clear how Do Not Track would work. One solution is to have a feature built into your web browser–a button or setting–that would block data from being collected and transmitted to third parties, much the way you can now prevent cookies from being stored on your computer.

Yesterday Microsoft announced that it would build a Do Not Track option into Internet Explorer 9. The browser is currently in beta release. (If you’re curious how this will work, read about it here.)  It’s a good start.

But what’s really needed is a broad policy that spells out how the personal information collected on every American can be used. Right now it’s a free-for-all, with no clear guidelines. While we may be able to stop personal information from being collected in the future, what about everything that’s already out there? What protection do we have? Very little at the moment.

According to Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, “There are no limits to what types of information can be collected, how long it can be retained, with whom it can be shared and how it can be used. Consumers simply have no legal control over being spied on when they go online.”

Although more action is needed, the FTC is taking a baby step in the right direction. If you’re motivated, the commission is accepting comments from the public until January 21, 2011.

Do you feel like prey being tracked across the online consumer landscape? Share your thoughts on this important issue.