Friday, December 17, 2010

Government should rein in web ‘stalking’


The Obama administration has rejected a unanimous Federal Trade Commission recommendation that it create a voluntary do-not-track program to allow Internet users to limit the ability of online companies to track their browsing habits.

Tracking browsing habits of Internet users essentially allows companies to silently stalk consumers. If online users get the sense they're being followed when advertising for items related to recent searches begins to pop up ubiquitously as they travel through cyberspace, they're not paranoid. They are being followed.

The FTC had proposed creation of something similar to today's national do-not-call lists in which people can put the brakes on telemarketers.

But what works against telemarketers is apparently anathema to online companies, and now to the Obama administration.

Maybe it's because the individually tailored ads don't arrive with a noisy ring right in the middle of dinner. They are unsettling nonetheless and have the potential to create more trouble for consumers than telemarketers ever have.

The administration is calling for a "Privacy Bill of Rights" that would enable the Commerce Department to establish online privacy guidelines. While the administration is moving in the right direction, its rejection of do-not-track provisions demonstrates the degree to which expectations of privacy have fallen.

Americans would react with horror if commercial enterprises had the unfettered right to read their snail mail or to listen in on their phone calls. They would call the cops if they found someone peering into the windows of their homes.

Yet the attitude about privacy on the Internet is that anything goes, and few people seem perturbed enough about tracking to even write their congressmen.

Psychics aren't necessary to predict how this is going to unfold.

When WikiLeaks gets done releasing State Department cables, it or one of its imitators could turn its attention to getting its hands on the browsing reports from computers used primarily by elected leaders.

Some browsing reports could prove to be treasure troves of scandal, misconduct or simple research that could be so misconstrued as to provide endless twisted fodder for attack ads during election campaigns. They could send shock waves through government and erode public trust. Think McCarthyism on steroids.

The day an elected official's nefarious browsing habits are released to the public is the day the president and Congress will begin to take the lack of Internet privacy seriously.




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