Viewpoints: ‘Do Not Track’ Would Protect Online Privacy

Thu, May 5, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Why should iPhone and Android users have to worry about being spied on by their smart phones? Shouldn’t we be able to say no to some of California’s biggest companies, Google and Facebook, when they violate our privacy daily by tracking us online and collecting massive amounts of our private information without our explicit consent?

    Article 1 of California’s Constitution broadly declares privacy is among our inalienable rights, but our privacy laws have not kept pace with the Digital Age. Our telephone calls cannot be recorded without our permission.

    We cannot be stalked as we shop in brick-and-mortar stores. Yet whatever we do online is tracked, usually without our knowledge and consent. The data may help target advertising, but can also be used to make assumptions about people in connection with employment, housing, insurance and financial services; for purposes of lawsuits against individuals; and for government surveillance.

    Tuesday the California Senate Judiciary Committee made history as the first legislative body in the nation to debate and move legislation forward that would allow us to say no to any company that wants to track us or our family online without our consent. The committee voted to send the landmark “Do Not Track” bill forward by a 3-2 vote.

    Authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, Senate Bill 761 would give us a way to send a “Do Not Track” message from our browsers, and websites would be required to honor it.

    Three of the four major browsers – Mozilla’s Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari – have or will soon have a mechanism to send the Do Not Track message. Only Google with Chrome is resisting. The problem is there is no requirement that a website must honor the Do Not Track request.

    SB 761 authorizes the attorney general to write regulations spelling out those responsibilities and to enforce them for California businesses. The bill also provides that websites with which a consumer has an ongoing business relationship could gather information necessary for transactions even if the consumer had enabled Do Not Track.

    A poll by Consumer Watchdog found that 90 percent of Americans want legislation to protect their online privacy, and 80 percent support a Do Not Track mechanism. Another 86 percent want a single-click button on their browsers that makes them anonymous when they search online.

    In December, the Federal Trade Commission’s report, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change,” endorsed a Do Not Track mechanism. Since then Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, has introduced HR 654, the Do Not Track Me Online Act. But the national bill faces uncertain prospects in the Republican-controlled House. California, whose Silicon Valley companies created the problem, needs to take matters into its own hands.

    The online advertising industry claims that SB 761 will kill the advertising-based Internet. Telemarketers made the same Chicken Little warnings when the Golden State pioneered the Do Not Call list, implementing it under then Attorney General Bill Lockyer two years before the FTC launched a national list. Today the Do Not Call list has more than 200 million phone numbers and is arguably the most important consumer protection of the last decade.

    Giving Americans a visible, uncomplicated choice to stop Internet companies from tracking us online will not end online advertising, but it will force advertisers to respect our personal boundaries. If that means fewer targeted sales of Viagra or shady mortgage refinance schemes, so be it.

    The Do Not Track Me movement is so important because it sets the principle and precedent of the first real governmental limits on the Wild West of Internet data mining. It establishes our right to be online without being tracked and makes clear the Internet has become a necessity of life that government must protect.

    Privacy violations are not victimless. Identity theft has run rampant because so much of our personal information is available in so many places. Teenagers are particularly at risk because they tend to share too much information online. And our jobs, familial relationships and friendships can be jeopardized if information about our medical condition, sexual preferences or lifestyle choices is evident and available to anyone who can see the advertisements on our computer screens.

    Of course, some consumers may decide that they want their information gathered so they can have a more personally focused experience while on the Web. The point is it must be up to us whether and when our data are gathered.

    “We also believe, as do most American businesses, that no company loses by respecting the wishes of its customers,” FTC Chairman John Leibowitz recently wrote. “Do Not Track will allow the Internet to continue to thrive while protecting our basic right to privacy when we travel in cyberspace.”

    A Do Not Track mechanism would give consumers better control of their information and help restore their confidence in the Internet. That’s a win-win for consumers and business.


    Jamie Court is president of Consumer Watchdog. John M. Simpson is the director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project.

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