While our electronic privacy laws have remained stagnant, online advertising has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. The browsing and communications habits of online users are routinely and secretly tracked as they surf the internet. Yesterday, Senator Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, introduced a bill to establish a Do Not Track mechanism –similar to a Do Not Call Registry– that would allow users to restrict what companies collect about them and regain control of their privacy and online identity.
Online advertisers are creating profiles that contain an unprecedented breadth of personal information. According to a 2010 Wall Street Journal report, Microsoft’s MSN.com attached a tracking device that predicts such detailed information as an individual’s age, ZIP code, gender, income, marital status, presence of children and home ownership. More intrusive devices are capable of monitoring information like what individuals type, resulting in the storing of information as sensitive as political opinions expressed in a chat room, or a Google search for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Profiles like these are now held on many, if not most, Americans. A New York Times report from last November on the scope of online advertising found that the customers of a software company called BluKai–which owns travel sites like Kayak and Expedia—currently track more than 80 percent of the U.S. online population, and have created more than 200 million individual profiles based on what individuals browse and buy online.
Although government agencies have called on industry to provide privacy protections for consumers for years now, self-regulatory efforts have fallen short. In one of their most recent—and ridiculous—compromises, a group of online advertisers attempted to redefine Do Not Track so that the function would merely withhold targeted advertising from consumers, while advertisers could continue to create and store profiles. Meanwhile, a voluntary process convened by the W3C, an internet standard setting body, has dragged on for years. It is time for Congress to act.
The internet is one of the greatest tools at our disposal to practice our First Amendment rights as we communicate, learn and express ourselves on a global scale. But key to technological advancement is our ability to surf and communicate online without the fear of being watched. Without these privacy protections, the internet will no longer thrive as an open and innovative medium.
We applaud Senator Rockefeller for his effort to put forth a straightforward “Do Not Track” option in order to protect our First Amendment rights, maintain our right to privacy and support the growth of the internet.