Thursday, May 22, 2008

On Internet Privacy, Fend for Yourself

The Washington Post ran a story today about the FTC's review of behavioral targeting by Internet advertisers. I have followed the regulation of Internet advertising for ten years, and I believe the privacy issue is much more interesting to privacy advocates and journalists than to the average Internet user. It's not that the issue needs more publicity; thousands of articles have been written, speeches made, press conferences held, and lawsuits filed, not to mention billions of banners ads run by well-intended marketers themselves. And still, most people have little interest in the issue, and those who do care about it protect themselves with cookie-deleting or ad-blocking tools that are inexpensive and readily available. The FTC has repeatedly told Congress that it already has all the regulation it needs to protect Internet users, because deceptive practices are already illegal, and almost any egregious intrusion on your privacy can be connected to a deceptive practice.

With my good understanding of the landscape, I recommend to friends that they familiarize themselves with the information that marketers collect, and when it crosses outside their personal comfort zone, take action, which often is as simple as opting-out or adjusting browser tools. Do not rely on the government law or regulation to protect you; the landscape shifts too quickly for that ever to be effective.

For instance, when AOL released supposedly anonymous search histories to academics and journalists a few years ago, the New York Times was able to track down one of the users within hours. Someone noted that, for a heavy Internet user, your search history is essentially a record of every thought you've had for the past several years. For some people, such a history is a benefit, because they can retrieve old searches and perform them again. To others, it's creepy. And fortunately for those in the latter group, most search engines make it easy to opt-out of their collecting your search history. And some Internet Service Providers are working with marketers to track every single Web site you ever visit, and then create a targeting profile. They provide assurances that the profiles are anonymous, and carefully secured. Many people actually prefer that any ads they receive be targeted to their interests. As long as these ISPs adequately disclose their practices and enable users to opt-out (which they can do by switching ISPs, for starters), there is no need for the government to do anything more, other than to ensure there is adequate competition in the marketplace.

How do you familiarize yourself with Internet marketing practices ? FindingDulcinea's Web Guide to Internet Marketing and Privacy is a narrated guide to the best resources for understanding both off-line and online marketing practices, and how to take steps to opt-out of practices you personally are uncomfortable with.

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