Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, held a hearing today on online consumer privacy and "Do Not Track" standards. Do Not Track is a concept similar to the "Do Not Call" registry, and would allow individuals to signal that they don't wish to have their movements monitored by advertisers as they surf the web. The title of the hearing was "A Status Update on the Development of Voluntary Do-Not-Track Standards." We've got news for you, Congress—the status is not good.
Over a year ago, the White House released its "Privacy Bill of Rights," proclaiming that "We Can't Wait" for our privacy rights to catch up with technology. The administration called on the Commerce Department to bring together industry and privacy advocates to create enforceable policies that provide consumers choice about their privacy and require companies to implement transparent business practices. Pushed by privacy advocates and the White House announcement, ad agencies agreed to support Do Not Track.
Unfortunately, since these promising announcements, negotiations in the U.S. and abroad have fallen flat. While representatives from multi-billion dollar industries drag their feet in negotiations, advocates with limited funding continue to devote as many resources as possible to the cause. In one of the industry's more ridiculous attempts at compromise, industry reps tried to redefine Do Not Track such that targeted ads would cease, while specific profiles of individuals continue to be created and stored. What kind of privacy protection is that?
An international effort by the W3C—a world-wide internet standard-setting body—to create a Do Not Track system has literally gone on for years. Although W3C is generally pretty effective, the body has gotten so much pushback from ad industries involved in the negotiations that progress has ground to a halt.
We have written many times in the past about the invasive practices companies use to target, track, and create profiles of individuals' personal data (see here, here, and here, for example), and citizens have increasingly taken steps to guard their privacy. But even as consumers attempt to protect themselves—by deleting web history and cookies, or installing ad-tracking software—companies keep coming up with increasingly stealthy and evolving ways to track. First there were supercookies, which are much more difficult to find and delete, as they track users' web movements and collect data across numerous sites. Then there were web bugs or beacons – miniature, hardly-detectable graphic images placed on a website or in an email to monitor the behavior of the visitor or sender. If this virtual arms race between companies and people trying to control their privacy online continues, it could eventually disrupt how the Internet works.
Industry leaders have been given more than enough time to show they want consumers to have control over their personal information online, and their efforts have fallen short. Browser manufactures have worked hard to create a mechanism within their products to allow consumers to signal a desire not to be tracked, but if third-party collectors refuse to honor that preference, consumers remain unprotected. We applaud Senator Rockefeller for shining a light on this important issue. It is time for Congress to act to ensure Americans don't lose their right to privacy as our lives—whether we like it or not—increasingly move online.