Advertisers may be watching our every move on the Internet. And privacy advocates want it to stop.
Whatever we seek, buy, sell or click online is diligently tracked and used to accumulate huge databases reflecting our preferences, pastimes and proclivities for everything from books to clothing, to our general spending levels and specific buying habits.
Our random browsing is also tracked – the sites we visit, the games we may play, how much time per day we spend online.
With this information in hand, advertisers can target us with sales messages customized for maximum appeal. And if it doesn’t seem we're a good prospect – based on tracking data – for some service or product, those advertisers can exclude us from their solicitations, thereby saving their money, time and effort.
Currently, there are no "Do Not Track" laws on federal books. Nor is there a "Do Not Track" registry, similar to the "Do Not Call" registry established in 2008 by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
But privacy advocates are now at work attempting to persuade the U.S. government to enact legislation enabling Internet users to issue a legal and enforceable "Do Not Track" request to all the advertisers that continue to monitor consumer Internet use. Included among the most vigorous of privacy advocates -- activist and lobbying institutions -- are the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Privacy Rights Clearing House.
Beyond issues of privacy are the constant and often-unpleasant bombardment of advertising targeted to specific consumer cohorts – pop-up ads on the Internet, direct mail ads in the mail and ads directed at smart phones and iPads.
Privacy advocates scored a major victory when Microsoft recently launched its new and widely used Internet Explorer 10 browser, which includes a “Do Not Track” default. The feature automatically sets up the anti-tracking request for users. Mozilla's Firefox browser already offers this feature.
Nevertheless, the anti-do not track battle continues. At least nine members of Congress oppose the Do Not Track trend. They sent a strongly-worded letter to the Federal Trade Commission challenging a global organization called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which is attempting to establish international agreements on do not track protocols.
The lawmakers claim that the do not track option to safeguard consumer privacy could impede "the flow of data at the heart of the Internet's success."
Other opponents of the do not track movement include the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), an industry organization representing advertisers who use the Internet to sell their goods and services.
"There is a strong concern that the W3C is not the right forum to be making this decision,” said Rachel Thomas, vice president of government affairs for the DMA. "The attempt to set policy is entirely outside their area of expertise," she said.
Joining the legislators and the DMA as allies against the do not track movement is the Association of National Advertisers (ANA). The organization represents the interests of some 450 companies with 10,000 or more brands that combined spend more than $250 billion in advertising and marketing.
A letter from the board of this 97-year-old organization to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and two additional senior executives vigorously criticized the firm's decision to make do not track the default option on Internet Explorer 10. The do not track default denies computer users a choice, claims the ANA.
Among the companies complaining about the do not track option were Dell, I.B.M., Intel, Verizon, Visa and Wal-Mart.
Expanding on their anti-do not track argument, the letter from the ANA said, "Microsoft's action is wrong. The entire media ecosystem has condemned this action. In the face of this opposition and the reality of the harm that your actions could create, it is time to realign with the broader business community by providing choice through a default of 'off' on your browser's 'do not track' setting."
With Microsoft's do not track option in effect, as much as 43 percent of U.S. browsers will be excluded from data collection, the letter claimed.
However, Microsoft rejected advertisers' objections. The company's chief privacy officer, Brendon Lynch, said in an e-mail statement, "Consumers want and expect strong privacy protection to be built into Microsoft products and services."
Beyond the privacy issues involved in the do not track dispute are aspects of the so-called Internet barter system, which means Internet users allow advertisers to track their activity in return for free access to various sites. The ultimate resolution of the do not track dispute will impact the diversity of the Internet.
Under the current arrangement, Internet users who permit tracking, either deliberately or by default, allow the acquisition of information on the sites they visit. In return, websites can offer free availability of information (the Wiki sites, for example), access to music, games, as well as social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, among the most frequently visited social media sites.
Sites that attract fewer viewers may nevertheless profit by this Internet barter system because of the specialized information they provide for highly-targeted ads.
Without this advertising, the Internet becomes "less diverse, less economically successful, and frankly less interesting," said Mike Zaneis, general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). The IAB consists of more than 500 major U.S. media and technology companies which sell 86 percent of online advertising. The IAB represents US based companies, many with global interests including the evaluation of recommendations made by the government or consumer advocacy groups.
Generally, privacy advocates seemed not to be persuaded by Mr. Zaneis' argument. The presence of third-party advertising and links on a website, they say, may be accumulating data that a website visitor may not want to have tracked.
"While many advertisers do support privacy, there is clearly a rogue element of advertising networks that wants to subvert the process. Or so it seems to me," said Jon D. Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, and recipient of the anti- do not track letter sent by the nine legislators mentioned above.
The White House has also weighed in on the controversy. In February 2012, the Obama administration issued a request for legislation creating what was called a "privacy bill of rights." Proposed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the call for the new law came after two previous years of study of privacy and online consumer data by the government agency.
Commerce Secretary John Bryson endorsed the idea as "an important step toward fostering a culture of trust and respect of privacy."
Under the proposed legislation, enforceable codes of conduct would be enacted into law, and consumers would be allowed to access their personal data, make corrections, and be assured that their data would be secure.
Consumer groups and privacy proponents fear that advertisers and Web firms may have too much influence on legislative debate in advance of a vote, persuading lawmakers to water down restraints or vote against the Do Not Track proposal.
Some industry leaders, including Yahoo, want to regulate themselves, rather than be monitored by government. But while some legislators may support industry self-regulation, others oppose it.
"Voluntary, self-regulatory efforts aren’t a substitute for laws that keep consumers information safe from prying eyes," said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass).
One example of self-regulation is Google Chrome 23, which has installed a Do Not Track option on its latest version. But critics say it's not easy to implement. When consumers finally activate the Do Not Track choice, a prompt asserts that the user may still not be protected. Sites may continue to collect data on consumer Internet use, and while targeted advertising may stop, non-customized advertising would continue to be sent to the user.
As of now, no laws have been passed protecting consumer privacy on the Internet, and the debate on tracking continues.
Ultimately, the resolution of this issue will be market-driven. Consumers will decide if they prefer to keep their Internet activity private or allow it to be tracked by advertisers. But will users of Internet browsers with the Do Not Track default setting know that they can turn it off? Many will not, say advertisers.