Last Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission backed a plan that would create an easy-to-use and universal way for consumers to opt out of Internet companies monitoring their browsing and purchasing patterns âÄî requiring a simple “do not track” button on browsers, similar to the “do not call” list that protects consumers from telemarketers.
The online advertising industry argues it can regulate itself, but instead it has proven that this is not the case. Google, for example, monitors the content of Gmail messages to target its ads to users and faces consequences for mining data including e-mail snippets that were taken from local Wi-Fi networks by the companyâÄôs Street View vehicles. Aside from flagrant industry abuses, the FTC cites “long, incomprehensible privacy policies that consumers typically do not read, let alone understand.” This is in addition to chilling comments from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who said, “If you have something that you donâÄôt want anyone to know, maybe you shouldnâÄôt be doing it in the first place.”
Advertisement targeting is not inherently bad, but it is frequently done without disclosure, and most consumers do not understand the extent to which companies are sharing their data. This FTC plan would help consumers understand what companies are doing with browsing and purchasing data and would empower them to protect privacy rights to the extent they see fit. The plan is open for public comment for two months, after which the FTC and Congress should take the necessary steps to implement this important consumer protection as soon as possible.