A Positive Development on Surveillance of ConsumersFriday, September 26th, 2008 by Harry Lewis
Verizon and AT&T have announced that they will not track their customers’ Internet wanderings without their explicit request. The key is that the default is no tracking; only if the customer affirmatively “opts in” to tracking will it occur.
ISPs were getting some heat from Congress because of privacy concerns, so the move by these ISPs surely is enlightenment prompted by anticipation of a mandate. Nonetheless, it’s not a small matter. The data on what we do on the Internet is an extremely valuable commodity, and these companies might have put up a stronger fight for their right to collect it. Comcast, will you please adopt the same posture?
The Washington Post story on this makes several important points. The opt-in provision is likely to result in a very low level of participation in tracking, unless customers who are being tracked have a perceptibly better experience than those who do not. Still, with millions of users, a lot of data can be collected even if participation is low in percentage terms.
Nothing in the announcement by these service providers limits what individual web services can do to collect data about you by storing cookies on your computer. That mechanism aids the targeting of advertising toward your particular interests. And while informed consent and education about privacy should be major goals for the industry, it is worth remembering that the explosion of the Internet as a service to noncommercial users is largely funded by advertising revenue. Though one should always be skeptical about sky-is-falling statements by trade group representatives, there is some truth to this claim:
“If Congress required ‘opt in’ today, Congress would be back in tomorrow writing an Internet bailout bill,” said Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy for the¬†Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group. “Every advertising platform and business model would be put at risk.”