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Dear Google: Do Not Track Me

• September 17, 2010 • 12:34 PM

In the same vein as the popular Do Not Call list, privacy advocates would like a Do Not Track that would allow people to opt out of having their online behavior monitored.

Most consumers know well this fundamental axiom of advertising: Read a women’s magazine, and you’ll likely get ads for beauty care; watch the Super Bowl, and you’ll probably see ads hawking beer. Targeted advertising makes assumptions about you because, generally speaking, the Elle reader and the NFL fan buy different things.

Over the last few years, however, this strategy has shifted subtly on the Web. Today, you’ll get that same beer ad on ESPN.com. But browse next to The New York Times, and it will likely go there with you.

Search engines and online ad networks (which are sometimes one and the same) have been tracking you on the Internet.

As more consumers and privacy advocates realize this, there’s a growing push for Congress to do something about it in the model of one of the most popular pieces of legislation ever — the Do Not Call list. What if, just as you can opt your phone number out of intrusive telemarketing rolls, your computer could opt out of Google’s invisible tracking?

The movement is premised on the idea that certain kinds of information — your surfing habits online — belong to you in the same way your computer does.

“That’s kind of a fundamental human right,” argued John Simpson, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog. “The books that people have been taking out of the library are not something that’s shared, and librarians have fought to maintain that. Generally, you can’t go in and say, ‘What’s my wife been reading on her library card? What’s my son been reading on our library card?’ It’s private.

“In the same way, the Internet is a great source of information, and people ought to be able to consider that their activity online is private in the same way. The fact of the matter is that it’s not right now.”
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Right now, The New York Times leaves cookies on your computer that allow the site to remember your login preferences when you return the next day. But it also drops third-party cookies that allow its ad networks to track you as you move on to other sites.

As a result, online advertising has grown much more sophisticated. Now, you won’t just see an ad related to the content you’re perusing; you’ll see an ad, regardless of content, informed by your behavior.

“And I think that’s much more intrusive,” Simpson said. Especially given that most people don’t realize it’s going on.

Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a bill in the House earlier this summer, and the Federal Trade Commission is currently studying the issue.

Do Not Track would be technologically more complicated than Do Not Call. For starters, there wouldn’t exactly be a list. More likely, you would have the option of opting into a mechanism that would leave a cookie on your computer preventing other sites from leaving their cookies tracking you.

Today, some online ad networks voluntarily let you opt out of behavioral advertising. But this doesn’t mean they’ve stopped peering over your keyboard.

“The main issue with implementing such a mechanism — in addition to the technology issues — is this: If a consumer makes use of Do Not Track, whether it’s a list or something else, is that going to stop the consumer from being tracked?” asked Christopher Soghoian, a security and privacy researcher. “Or is it merely going to stop them from seeing ads based on the tracking that will continue to occur?”

Soghoian, who previously worked in the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, says a better option would be to embed Do Not Track into a browser header. But this would require browser vendors to help develop the technology that today opposes their own interests (most major browsers derive revenue from ad networks).

Do Not Track would essentially upend the current business model on the Internet, where browsers, ad networks and publishers — from The New York Times to the personal blog with banner ads — make money off behavioral insights that were never possible through print or television.

“Perhaps that business model is an inappropriate business model,” Simpson countered.

Besides, Soghoian points out, all these companies were making ad money the old-fashioned way before they started following consumers around the Web.

“It’s not like a Do Not Track mechanism would force the industry to go back to the Internet as it was in 1990,” he said. “This would simply ensure that, for those consumers who chose to not be tracked, publishers would have to go back to the way they made money three years ago.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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