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Over Easy: “Do Not Call” for the Internet?

Starting trackingIn 2012 the FTC issued a report, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations For Businesses and Policymakers” (the report is available at the link as a PDF), setting forth best practices for businesses to protect the privacy of consumers and provide them greater control over the collection and use of their personal data.

The final privacy report expands on a preliminary staff report the FTC issued in December 2010. The final report calls on companies handling consumer data to implement recommendations for protecting privacy, including:

  • Privacy by Design – companies should build in consumers’ privacy protections at every stage in developing their products. These include reasonable security for consumer data, limited collection and retention of such data, and reasonable procedures to promote data accuracy;
  • Simplified Choice for Businesses and Consumers – companies should give consumers the option to decide what information is shared about them, and with whom. This should include a Do-Not-Track mechanism [my emphasis] that would provide a simple, easy way for consumers to control the tracking of their online activities.
  • Greater Transparency – companies should disclose details about their collection and use of consumers’ information, and provide consumers access to the data collected about them.

The FTC report recommends that companies adopt simple and transparent ways to present consumers with choices about tracking, instead of densely worded privacy policies that people either don’t read or cannot easily understand. Among them would be a “Do Not Track” option, modeled on the popular (and not always effective) “Do Not Call” registry that can shield consumers from unwanted telemarketing calls. Some companies agreed in principle, but a debate over the definition, scope and application of “Do Not Track” has continued over the intervening years.

An op-ed in the New York Times penned by a former head of the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and titled “The Slow Death of Do Not Track” makes a good argument for why a long delayed attempt to implement the recommendations may also give us far less protection than we might have anticipated after the FTC report.

Now, finally, an industry working group is expected to propose detailed rules governing how the privacy switch should work. The group includes experts but is dominated by Internet giants like Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google and Yahoo. It is poised to recommend a carve-out that would effectively free them from honoring “Do Not Track” requests. [my emphasis]

If regulators go along, the rules would allow the largest Internet giants to continue scooping up data about users on their own sites and on other sites that include their plug-ins, such as Facebook’s “Like” button or an embedded YouTube video. This giant loophole would make “Do Not Track” meaningless.

Online companies typically make money by using the data collected from our web browsing to sell ads. If the influx of our data decreases, so does the money these companies make. Almost all commercial content on the Internet, including here at Firedoglake, depends on advertising to some extent.

The op-ed author, Fred B. Campbell Jr., argues that,

The regulatory process is the wrong way to address this fundamental tension. If the government wants to shift the Internet economy away from a “barter” system (exchanging personal data for free services) toward a subscription-based system, Congress should take charge.
The Federal Trade Commission shouldn’t help pick winners and losers through a murky process that has devolved into an effort to protect the positions of Internet giants. It should stay focused on policing the behavior of companies that short-shrift consumers or restrict competition. If the industry group recommends a lopsided version of “Do Not Track,” as expected, the commission should not go along with it. The correct balance between privacy and competition is a decision better left to Congress than to a feckless regulator.

Until the next complex case comes along…when somebody will say, “Congress is not competent to deal with the technical complexity of the issue, and decisions are better left to an impartial agency with the requisite technical expertise.” The merry go round keeps turning.

I wonder if the FTC ever really intended or wanted to protect our privacy? The FTC needs to be reminded that they are not in this as a referee between sparring tech giants. They are are in this — allegedly — as representatives of We the People, and the FTC should be concerning itself with our interests.

Don’t hold your breath.

Photo by Lambakoer on Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."