Outside editorial: It's too soon for a 'Do Not Track' law

Posted: Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

A Federal Trade Commission plan and a congressional hearing last week have raised the intriguing notion of a "Do Not Track" feature on Web browsers, allowing consumers to block advertisers from collecting data on the sites they visit and the purchases they make. Several lawmakers say they'll introduce legislation to require it, even though the FTC didn't recommend that.

It's too soon for government intervention. But the Internet industry is on notice: It must aggressively respond to legitimate privacy concerns or be prepared for Congress to step in, as it eventually did with "Do Not Call" legislation for phone solicitors.

Not everyone objects to the information tracking. It helps companies by more effectively targeting consumers with ads, but it also helps Web surfers find things they want. Many consumers would be disappointed if they stopped getting personalized advertising.

But the industry must build in more transparency and simplicity. Users need to understand what's being collected and how it's being used. It's impossible for the average person - with a job, kids and a mile-long to-do list - to understand the privacy implications of data sharing, let alone take the time to read legalistic disclosures and figure out how to install plug-ins and disable cookies.

Innovators are working on ways to protect privacy while helping consumers understand the trade-offs. One option might be a browser button that toggles between settings, so users can see what they're giving up by turning off information sharing. This could address some concerns of advertisers. Other options include the ability to adjust the strength of privacy settings, or more thorough methods of wiping clean users' browsing history.

Ultimately, perhaps those who don't want to give away their personal data on a site could be asked to pay a fee to use the site as a way of helping make up for lost advertising revenue.

The industry should be responding better to privacy concerns. But given the abundance of nascent ideas, it's too soon for government intervention - if only because of how quickly regulations would become obsolete. The FTC framework this week should serve as a warning to Internet companies that if they don't move quickly and aggressively, Congress will step in.



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