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A “Do Not Track” List?

One item in the recent news that caught my attention was a call by certain consumer groups to develop a “do not track” list in the US. This list, parallel in principle to a “do not call” list that went into effect years ago to curb unsolicited telephone calls, would allow people to “opt out” or “opt in” concerning whether companies and organizations can track their visits to Web sites through the use of cookies. Advertisers that install cookies on users’ computers would have to register every server used in connection with tracking Web site hits with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). A two-day long FTC public forum on this subject was held earlier this month.

If people were allowed to choose whether or not companies and organizations can track their Web surfing, predicting that most people would decide that they did not want anything tracking what they did would be a “no-brainer.” The only real advantage to users might be simplifying certain Web interaction sequences because cookies usually contain information about previous interactions and provide this information to Web servers, thereby precluding the need for users to repeat actions in which they have previously engaged. In contrast, the overwhelming advantage of using cookies belongs to companies that use the information provided to them to tailor advertising according to user profiles that these companies construct. The reaction from industry has thus been predictably negative. Randall Rothenberg, who heads the Interactive Advertising Bureau, went so far as to call the “do not track” movement a hindrance to industry innovation. He instead advocates self-regulation by industry.

I’d like to go on record as being strongly in favor of the “do not track” initiative. For one thing, installing tracking cookies in users’ computing systems with neither their knowledge nor consent is unethical; it constitutes a gross invasion of privacy, one in which “big brother” is perpetually watching, so to speak. Additionally, why should a company or organization have the right to install anything on another individual’s system without that individual’s permission? Users should be afforded the right to determine exactly what does and does not run on their computers. If not, think what might be next—perhaps even covert monitoring devices installed in cars to determine where the driver is going. And as far as what Rothenberg’s claim that a “do not track” list would stifle industry innovation, all I can say is “get real.” If innovation translates to infringement of individuals’ privacy using clandestine measures, it is time for Rotherberg and the others whose interests he represents to rethink the nature of innovation and what it should entail. Finally, “self-regulation” is a great idea in principle, but in reality it does not turn out to be what its advocates promise. Consider, for example, how little “self-regulation” has done for the practice of information security. If it were not to various security-related statutes and regulations, as ugly as some of them regrettably are, the practice of information security would still be in the proverbial dark ages, as it was twenty years ago.

The fight concerning the “do not track” initiative has just begun. Individual privacy is at stake. Getting federal legislation passed will not be easy. The opposition will be well-organized and well-funded. So stayed tuned—the events surrounding this issue are bound to be intriguing.

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