Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission floated a proposal for a "Do Not Track" option for consumers to block certain online advertisers. Predictably, the measure was found wanting by the ad industry, which believes its own self-regulation is a superior approach, and by privacy advocates, who believe the FTC plan doesn't go far enough. Bob spent the week speaking to the interested parties about so-called "behavioral targeting" online.
Winter RoseArtist: by The Bees
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission floated a proposal for a “Do Not Track” option for consumers to block certain online advertisers, roughly approximating the “Do Not Call” registry obliging telemarketers to leave you in peace. Predictably, the measure was found wanting by the ad industry, which believes its own self-regulation is a superior approach, and also by privacy advocates, who believe the FTC plan does not go far enough. Bob spent the week speaking to the interested parties about so-called “behavior targeting” online and came back with this:
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s how to get the heebie-jeebies. From the privacy of your own home, surf the Internet for information on adult incontinence or bankruptcy or something truly shameful and repulsive, say, Real Housewives of D.C., and watch the ads that show up on Yahoo! or whatever. Adult diapers, credit repair, plastic surgery – it’s the creepiest feeling –
[CREEPY MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - as if someone were looking over your shoulder.
[MUSIC] Which, of course, someone is. Well, not someone, but definitely some good number of computers which have detected the digital trail you've blazed online and served you advertising meant to match your demonstrated interests. If you've been reading about cars, maybe you hear from Chrysler. If you've been reading about Florida vacations, maybe Delta Airlines shows up with Orlando deals. “Behavioral targeting” this is called and it’s the best thing ever, or a total horror show, or both.
PETER ECKERSLEY: We have to fear the complete and permanent loss of our right to read and think in private.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Eckersley is senior staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
PETER ECKERSLEY: We're worried about governments building databases of people’s politics opinions. We're worried about insurance companies at some point deciding that they can go in and obtain copies of these records. With old-fashioned books and magazines, you can read those and no one knows what you’re reading, no one knows what you’re thinking. With the Web, it’s like you’re reading a magazine but at the same time the magazine and several other people are reading you. And, from our point of view, this is, frankly, unacceptable. Humanity can do better.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s the horror side of the equation and, while it’s alarming, it’s not coming from nowhere. Iran and China, for instance, have made a grim science of tracking political dissidents and sending in the cops. Several months ago, a Google engineer notoriously abused his access to snoop on several teenagers’ Gmail and chat logs. Even more notoriously, in 2006, AOL inadvertently published 20 million Web queries from 650,000 subscribers. On the other hand, 15 years into online life, it’s hard to find more documented examples of gross data abuse. The threat, while looming, is like poking your eye out with a pencil. Enabling conditions do not guarantee the worst outcome. Privacy hawks want to act now before it’s too late. Other parties are more concerned with killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
DAN JAFFE: If targeted advertising goes away, this will begin to erode the foundations of the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Jaffe, executive vice-president and chief lobbyist for the Association of National Advertisers, warns that vast amounts of free online content will be in jeopardy.
DAN JAFFE: This has all been on the foundation of advertising support, and anything that would undermine this advertising support would be very detrimental.
BOB GARFIELD: Detrimental, by depriving us of the aforementioned best thing ever. First, for consumers, targeted advertising offers substantial deliverance from spam. You’re going to be advertised to in any case; isn't it better to be served ads that are potentially relevant, rather than random teeth whiteners and diet plans and dancing silhouettes from predatory lenders? Maybe you get the willies when your computer seems to read your mind, but maybe that’s like arachnophobia, a visceral reaction that belies the glory of spiders in the ecosystem. More importantly, absent consumer willingness to pony up cash money, advertising does pay for tons of content, and targeted ads fetch tens or hundreds of times more for publishers to underwrite that content, making the world safe for Facebook, AOL and Arianna Huffington. Take away the ability to track, and Arianna will be very sad. Furthermore, Dan Jaffe insists just as no body is tracking you – it’s just computer software – nothing is tracking you, you. The websites are merely leaving behind digital files called cookies on your browser when it browses in their direction. Delta Airlines doesn't care that it’s your individual browser. Yet still, there is deep public anxiety about behavioral targeting, so what is a federal regulator to do?
DAVID VLADECK: What we've tried to do is take a hard look at both sides of the ledger.
BOB GARFIELD: David Vladeck is the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection for the Federal Trade Commission.
DAVID VLADECK: Certainly, there are no shortage of harmful uses and horror stories that you can tell, but our goal is to come up with a solution that protects the public, protects people’s privacy, permits them to exercise choice over their personal data, without putting a roadblock into the information highway.
BOB GARFIELD: No easy trick. For instance, while advertisers claim no interest in the identity of the human being browsing for herpes remedies:
DAVID VLADECK: There are other players in this ecosystem, data brokers and so forth, whose interest is really in compiling as robust a dossier on individuals as is possible, and so the more they can learn about you and your purchasing habits, and so forth, the more valuable their database is. They can sell this to anyone who may have an interest in you, including banks, insurance companies, marketers, divorce lawyers. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Which is why the FTC, after a year of deliberation, has floated its Do Not Track proposal.
DAVID VLADECK: One of the sort of signal proposals that we make is that consumers be provided some kind of access right to that information, so they know what information the data broker has. And in some instances, consumers ought to be able to at least contest the accuracy of that data or correct data, just like with your credit scores.
BOB GARFIELD: The other major provision would be a simple-to-access dashboard for metering your privacy protection to your tastes, allowing for all, some or no ad targeting, and for blocking tracking cookies in whole or in part. For instance, you could opt to keep everybody’s nose out of your Google searches. The thing is, at the moment, the FTC lacks the authority to mandate, much less enforce, such a system. But legislators across the political spectrum so far seem to love the proposal, which is why right now Do Not Track is more like Do Not Dally, a warning to the ad industry to solve the problem in house, or else, to which threat the industry replies, we have. We have!
SCOTT MEYER: You can opt out of every company that’s participating in the program.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Meyer is CEO of the Better Advertising Project, the vendor hired by a coalition of ad industry associations to create an anti-targeting mechanism for consumers before the government steps in to do it for them.
SCOTT MEYER: And already the 60 companies in there probably represent easily 80 percent of the behavioral advertising market in the U.S. You would be opted out of them with essentially one click.
BOB GARFIELD: Perhaps you've already noticed the itsy-bitsy little triangle icon on some online ads.
SCOTT MEYER: It’s called the advertising option icon, and the intent is that it will be used on every ad that is collecting or using behavioral targeting data, and also be on every website where behavioral data is being collected. We are already, through our clients, serving more than five billion impressions per month with that icon for brands like AT&T and Proctor & Gamble.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, and 20 percent of the handful of visitors so far have decided not to receive some or all targeted ads. But what does that accomplish? The targeted ads are either a benefit or a nuisance, but either way, they are not the threat itself. The threat is the harvested data that enables them. The FTC’s David Vladeck:
DAVID VLADECK: The difference in what’s critically important is they're offering you the right to opt out of getting targeted ads, not out of having your data collected. We don't think that that goes far enough.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, opting out of targeting could provide a false sense of arachno-security. You see no spiders so you imagine they no longer lurk. Peter Eckersley, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, assures you they lurk, which is why he believes Do Not Track should be the starting point and the consumer’s choice not to opt out, but to opt in.
PETER ECKERSLEY: We need to offer people privacy by default and in advance rather than something that you need to go out and proactively hunt down for yourself, because you won't know that you need it until it’s too late.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, he’s almost getting his wish. The forthcoming edition of Microsoft’s browser Internet Explorer 9 will make it easy for users to meter tracking itself, and Explorer commands 58 percent of the market. So, one way or another, with the government’s intervention or without it, your privacy – and Arianna’s future – will increasingly be in your hands.
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