Behavioral advertising isn’t the big problem

A coalition of privacy activists wants the FTC to do something about tracking consumer online activity, but that’s just the tip of the iceburg.

The following quote is from the report "Consumer Rights and Protections in the Behavioral Advertising Sector" presented by a whole passel of privacy activists during the Federal Trade Commission’s Town Hall meeting titled “Ehavioral Advertising: Tracking, Targeting, and Technology,” held on Nov. 1 and 2:

“The online tracking and targeting of consumers — both in its current form and as it may develop in the future — needs to be limited so that consumers can exercise meaningful, granular preferences based on timely and contextual disclosures that are understandable on whichever devices consumers choose to use ….Companies engaged in monitoring and tracking must respect consumer privacy by implementing Fair Information Practices, and there must be a structure that allows for enforcement of these rights.”

The report goes on to discuss the issues along with what rights consumers should have regarding online tracking and explains what the report’s sponsors want: “We urge the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take proactive steps to adequately protect consumers as online behavioral tracking and targeting become more ubiquitous.”

The sponsors want the FTC to implement a “Do Not Track” registry along with laws to enforce its use. While the concept sounds laudable, the policy would most affect those who deserve the least control: Companies that aren’t doing anything particularly nefarious will have to jump through all sorts of administrative and financial hoops to comply, while it will be business as usual for the bad guys and any company outside the United States.

But worst of all is the Do Not Track registry simply won’t work. What is being suggested is a registry where companies that want to track consumer behavior will have to register their domain names. Here’s the first major issue: How do you define tracking? Does a commercial motive have to be involved? Is recording preferences the same as tracking?

The proposal notes that “Consumers may have to download a browser upgrade, plug-in, or extension in order for the Do Not Track List to work for them.” OK, that guarantees this isn’t going to work. Why not just tell consumers to switch on the browser feature that lets them control what sites can set cookies on their system? If that’s too complex for them then the report’s proposal is a non-starter. And if it isn’t too complex, why invent another “solution”?

The naiveté of the report and its proposals are illustrated by the following: “Before allowing or conducting behavioral tracking, Internet access providers should provide a consumer with timely, contextual, and robust notice and opportunity to consent before allowing or conducting behavioral tracking and sharing the data collected thereby.” Obviously the distinction between an access provider and an organization wanting to track consumer behavior isn’t clear to the report’s authors.

But what I don’t understand is why these privacy groups aren’t trying to address the far bigger problem of consumer tracking in the real world. Every time you buy something from a major retailer or perform a significant financial transaction you become a data point. A data point that is measured, stored, cross-referenced and targeted. Why else do you think you get refinance offers that quote the amount of your current mortgage? Do you think your supermarket doesn’t pour over your purchasing patterns to “better serve you”? Do you think they wouldn’t sell your data to another company?

If the report’s sponsors want to see consumer tracking, targeting and data privacy fixed in the online world, they need to begin by fixing where all of these problems originate: in the real world. You can’t fix the information superhighway if you haven’t fixed Main Street first.

Gibbs lives on a recently fixed street in Ventura, Calif. Drive by comments to backspin@gibbs.com.

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