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Searls: 'We do not need Do Not Track legislation'

Expert on Internet privacy says businesses can thrive without Do Not Track legislation

By , Network World
July 03, 2012 09:52 AM ET

Network World - Imagine stopping at an information kiosk during a long road trip to use the rest room and check some maps, then later finding GPS tracking devices unwittingly attached to your car that have monitored everywhere you've traveled since you left that information kiosk.

That's how Doc Searls, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology & Society and the author of the Intention Economy, describes browsing the Internet. A good example is Dictionary.com. The online dictionary often appears at the top of search engine results when users are looking for a quick definition. Once they've visited the actual site to get that definition, they're targeted by 234 tracking mechanisms, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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The only difference between these two examples is that, when online, most people never see that GPS tracking device.

"You don't expect someone to stick something to your car and track where you're going, and yet that's normative now, because there's a kind of no-harm, no-foul orientation to that," Searls says. "It's not that we in any genuine sense think that's OK. It's that 99.99% of people have no idea what's going on because it's out of sight, out of mind."

Of course, this is nothing new, and efforts at protecting consumer privacy have culminated in the Do Not Track protocol that has drawn support from Microsoft, Mozilla and Apple and is currently being standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium. Congress has also made an effort, introducing the Do Not Track Online Act of 2011 last May.

However, standards and legislation created to govern the use of technology to gather user data are unnecessary, Searls says. That's because alternative approaches to e-commerce can help businesses use data more effectively without having to monitor their activity and hoard their information.

"I don't think we need Do Not Track legislation," Searls says. "I think it's a bad idea at this stage, because we don't have the technical solutions to the problem, the problem basically being that we got stuck at client/server in 1995 with the first Web servers and especially with the invention of the cookie, and we have this normative system in which almost all the power resides on the server side and not on the client side."

This cookie-based economic approach to advertising is hampering the communicative power of the Internet, Searls says. The guessing game that many companies are playing with big data -- analyzing where customers have been and trying to identify what they might want next -- is less effective than a relationship in which buyers provide their wants and needs voluntarily. Businesses really don't need to monitor Internet users' activity when, in a two-way world where anyone can connect with any company via social networks, all they really have to do is ask.

"If I actually was involved in your stupid game and I know you by name and you know me, and I knew who you were and we had a trusting relationship, I'd be able to give you better information," Searls says.

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