Consumers Have A Right To Online Anonymity

Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 9:53 am

    The following Op-Ed commentary by Consumer Watchdog’s John M. Simpson was published in the Thursday, January 28th, 2010 edition of The San Francisco Chronicle:

    The Federal Trade Commission, in the midst of
    studying how to protect consumers’ privacy online, needs to focus on
    what business online companies are really in.

    Where Google is concerned, for example, it’s all about the ads.

    One question being discussed at today’s FTC Privacy Roundtable at UC
    Berkeley is whether technology, for instance some new generation of
    software, can be relied upon to protect consumers’ online privacy.

    Consumers can’t look to technology for lasting privacy protection.
    It’s often too complex and cumbersome to use effectively. Moreover,
    when one technology is developed to protect consumers, another emerges
    to trump it. Enforceable regulations that have real consequences when
    violated are necessary. They should be based on broad principles, not
    on specific technologies.

    Murder is illegal. We don’t have one law against killing someone
    with a gun and a different one against killing him with a knife.
    Similarly, we don’t care what technology was used to spy on us; we just
    want to be able to say no.

    The FTC needs to focus first on what online companies do and what
    broad regulations will be effective in letting consumers protect
    personal information.

    Take Google, the king of the Internet. We need to understand that,
    despite its avowed mission "to organize the world’s information and
    make it universally accessible and useful," Google is an advertising
    business. It gathers huge amounts of consumer data and uses that
    information to sell ads. According to a filing with the Securities and
    Exchange Commission last November, 97 percent of Google’s revenue was
    coming from advertising.

    Google logs what you are searching for and tracks you as you surf
    the Web. Compiling and analyzing this data to offer us up to
    advertisers is Google’s $20 billion-a-year advertising gold mine.

    The FTC’s job is make sure that consumers have control of what data
    is gathered, how it is used and how long it’s kept. Consumers must
    first be able to see what data Google and the other online companies
    have accumulated, then delete it if they wish or prevent it from being
    gathered in the first place.

    Control is the key. Google could long ago have offered everyone a
    simple "make me anonymous" button. But it’s not likely that Google or
    any other company will voluntarily give us that control, because it
    endangers their advertising profits.

    The more realistic scenario is the government will need to step in
    with a "do not track me" list, analogous to the national "do not call"
    list. Only government can force Google and other tech giants to respect
    our privacy. Relying on private technology fixes, which the smarter
    engineers at Google can always disable, and consumers will have a hard
    time understanding, is the least powerful approach. The FTC should keep
    it simple; just let us tell the companies "no."

    John M. Simpson is a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog. Reach him at [email protected].

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