Right now, somebody is watching you. Actually, many people are. How many? It’s almost impossible to tell. What do they want to know about you? Only they know. After they follow you around for a while, what will they do with all the information they gather about you? They don’t have to tell you. They might not even know themselves.
Welcome to the modern Internet. Specifically, welcome to the industry of online tracking and advertising. It’s obscure, huge and growing. Every web site you visit has little tools, hidden in plain sight, tracking what you do online. There may be just one company tracking you, dozens, or even a hundred.
The data they gather is used to build a detailed profile of you, including your hobbies, which sites you visit, where you live, your gender and age. That profile helps advertisers make informed guesses about what you might want to buy, and which ad has the best chance of convincing you to buy it.
To the extent that Americans even know about the online tracking and advertising industry, they don’t like what they’ve heard. In a poll conducted in December by Gallup, 70% of Americans said advertisers should not be allowed to match ads to our interests based on the websites we visit (even though the industry already does exactly that, millions of times a day). Most people, 65%, are against tracking even if it means they get free access to websites.
“The problem is the whole online publishing economy is built on online advertising,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group that pushes for consumer and privacy rights online. “It’s dehumanizing. The whole process of tracking people in with information about their race, their kids, their medical histories, knowing where they are in real time, it’s capitalism’s version of George Orwell. It’s alarming. It’s disturbing.”
Another problem is that, right now, the only way to avoid being tracked online is to never go online. There’s a wide array of tools available to reduce the number of companies tracking you across the web. But none of them work in every situation.
So the Federal Trade Commission has proposed the ultimate opt-out tool: Do Not Track. The commission proposed the idea in a report published in December, and consumers have until Feb. 18 to comment on whether it’s a good idea. The FTC hopes Do Not Track will do for online marketing what Do Not Call did for telemarketing: Submit a heretofore unregulated industry to consumers’ desire for privacy.
“Although the practicalities of a proposed choice mechanism here would differ from Do Not Call,” according to the FTC report, “it would be similar in that it would allow consumers to express a single persistent preference regarding advertising targeted to them.”
Consumer advocates say it’s about time.
“The industry has refused really to act responsibly and admit there’s a privacy problem,” Chester says. “The industry is living in the previous century. The FTC is living in the 21st century.”
People who work in the online tracking and advertising industry counter that they don’t threaten privacy at all, and that Do Not Track could limit free content on the web without securing any additional privacy for consumers.
“I think the FTC is solving the wrong problem,” says Jonathan Shapiro, CEO of MediaWhiz, an online advertising company. “The real problem is identity theft, which has actually harmed people. ID theft doesn’t occur by large marketing organizations tracking people online.”
Image: quapan, via Flickr.com