[qi:063] A group of 10 consumer groups today asked the House Commerce Committee, which is drafting an online privacy bill, to consider stringent regulations aimed at curbing behavioral advertising and the use of sensitive consumer information. The groups, which include the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumers Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and The World Privacy Forum, also called for web sites to be more transparent about the types of data they collect and to give consumers a way to manage it. If accepted, the rules would add a layer of bureaucracy and expense for those looking to monetize their users’ surfing behavior by way of targeted ads.
The principles, which can be found here, include an opt-in clause whereby a web site must get the consumer’s permission to share his data if the site wants to use it beyond a 24-hour period. They also require that consumer information is purged after 90 days, and include a Do Not Track List, by which consumers could opt out of data collection entirely. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, believes that list would be more granular, allowing a consumer to select categories by which he would like to filter his ads in a manner similar to one proposed earlier this year by Google.
According to the consumer groups’ recommendations, people also should have the right to know what data is collected about them and have the ability to fix incorrect information attributed to them. Plus that data shouldn’t be available to just anyone — it should be kept secure and shouldn’t be accessible for non-advertising purposes except via subpoena. Those suggestions leave today’s recommendations and those by various online advertisers we wrote about in July pretty far apart.
Since companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and even Facebook stand to gain a considerable amount from selling targeted ads, regulations to make consumer data less accessible as well as more expensive to keep and use could harm their business models. The promise of highly targeted ads supports the valuations of many of today’s online media properties and social networks. Figuring out how to protect consumers’ privacy while also keeping quality content online for free is a balancing act that many web site users probably don’t even see.
Many of today’s recommendations aim to let consumers know that such a balancing act is taking place and to give them a glimpse of the trade-off between their privacy and their pocketbooks. It’s possible that if such recommendations are acted on, users might get more useful ads, ones that they are willing to see. But for the web portals and others hoping to take advantage of online ads, the recommendations would make what they do more expensive. And they could push consumers to opt out of providing personal data entirely.