A coalition of privacy groups and consumer advocates are calling on Congress to limit companies’ ability to track Web users and serve them targeted ads.
“Today, information from consumers is collected, compiled, and sold secretly, all done without reasonable safeguards,” the groups said in letters sent Tuesday to lawmakers on the House Commerce Committee. The letters were signed by 10 advocacy organizations including the Center for Digital Democracy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and World Privacy Forum. Recipients included Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), George Radanovich (R-Calif.), Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), and Joe Barton (R-Texas).
“Tracking people’s every move online is an invasion of privacy,” the groups said in an accompanying document. “Often consumers are not asked for their consent and have no meaningful control over the collection and use of their information, often by third parties with which they have no relationships.”
The advocacy groups put forward several specific proposals to limit data collection, including an outright prohibition on collecting or using sensitive information. The groups say Congress should ask the Federal Trade Commission to define “sensitive,” and that the term should include data about “health, finances, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, personal relationships and political activity.”
The privacy organizations also proposed a new type of opt-in/opt-out regime for behavioral targeting.
I imagine a long, drawn out fight between the internet industry and consumer privacy advocates, and have no idea how it will turn out. This is a very complex topic, and I’m not sure that the “consumer advocates,” if they get their way, will actually improve the web experience for most people. It might actually backfire.
Personally, I want to see ads that are relevant to me based on my interests, search history, sites I have visited, etc. I don’t like irrelevant ads. I hate dating ads, but see them all the time, even though any consumer database should easily be able to determine that I married and have kids. Somehow, that data doesn’t affect most of the ads I see. As social networks have more and more data about identity and use it to affect advertising everywhere else (think of Facebook Connect-enabled sites), then I will see fewer and fewer irrelevant or spammy ads.
However, as a consumer I would like to be able to get visibility into who is collecting what data about me. As with credit reports, I would like to be able to at least see and possibly dispute things that are not accurate.
At the recent CrunchUp, one speaker said he ordered a book on Amazon.com for his 18-month old daughter and now he is bombarded with all kinds of things he isn’t interested in, because their recommendation thinks he made that earlier purchase for himself.
If I’m not mistaken, Amazon gives consumers the ability to affect which purchases are used by the recommendation engine. Wouldn’t it be interesting if consumers could influence which data is used by the advertising industry to target them. So while I might be shopping for a car for months, after I’ve made a car purchase, I could somehow indicate that I won’t be buying a car for a few more years, so all the car ads could be turned off.
No simple answers here, but we will certainly see a lot more heated debate about what direction we should go. It will be interesting to see what legislation actually gets written and debated, and if anything will pass during a year that is consumed by bigger debates over health care and the economy.