Blown To Bits

A Massachusetts privacy-in-surfing bill

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A bill is before the Massachusetts legislature that would require web sites to give users the option of not having the records of their visits retained to be used to aid in targeted advertising. I am quoted briefly in the Patriot Ledger story on the bill, which seems unlikely to pass because, well, it’s July and the legislature wants to go on vacation. (See also this State House News Service story.)

I can’t speak to the details of the bill, in which many devils generally lie. It’s hard to argue against requiring an opt-out provision, which is likely not too hard to implement and won’t affect the advertising business model very much since few people ever change the default options on anything. (If you have the option of registering as an organ donor when you renew your drivers license, for example, participation rates vary hugely depending on whether the default is to be a donor or not to be a donor.)

Nonetheless, some of the sweeping statements about this issue are debatable. “It’s really your business what you visit on the internet,” said Rep. Daniel Bosley, speaking in support of the bill. Well, sort of; it’s also the web site’s business decision whether to send you a page when you ask for one. Google is not a public utility, even though it doesn’t require you to register in advance. Disclosure and transparency are good principles, but so are the laws of economics.

Randy Skoglund of the Americans for Technology Leadership, also supporting the bill, says “Most consumers aren’t aware how much info on them there is and how it’s being used. Consumers need to feel safe and protected online.” The first statement is absolutely true; people need to be more aware, and our book and the various disclosure mandates are steps toward educating the public. I am not so sure about the second. Is is the job of the government to make the public feel safe and protected online?

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