A poll released last week by Consumer Reports indicates that while 72% Americans are concerned with Internet privacy, 48% “incorrectly believe that their consent is required for companies to use the personal information they collect from their online activities.”
We wonder how a similar survey, focused solely on communities that have only recently crossed the digital divide, would differ from the Consumer Reports poll. We hypothesize that such a poll would either uncover an alarming sense of confidence in Internet safety or that privacy concerns are preventing segments of the population, particularly Hispanics, from utilizing the Internet to its fullest potential.
Recent Congressional interest in Internet advertising practices provides an opportunity for users, advocates, and community educators to become more aware of how, why and by whom information about their online activities are being used. A hearing held by a Senate subcommittee last Thursday focused on “behavioral targeting”, a practice used by Internet companies to track user movements through networks of websites in order to deliver tailored advertising.
Congress is taking steps to understand current practices in online advertising because it is concerned that consumers are unaware their online behavior is being tracked without their explicit consent. The Senators and the witnesses at Thursday’s hearing – representatives from the advocacy group Public Knowledge and Internet service providers AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon – agreed that online behavioral targeting can benefit consumers, provided that the technology is implemented in a manner that respects user privacy and allows consumers to exercise their right to control access to information about their online habits.
At the hearing, AT&T and Verizon pledged not to engage in the practice of online behavioral advertising without a consumer’s “affirmative consent”. They advocated for high consumer privacy and protection standards for all companies engaging in the business of data collection and online advertising. They also challenged other Internet companies to join them in adopting policies which allow consumers to opt-in to behavioral advertising, and laid out guidelines which would require transparency, protect consumer privacy and would give consumers control over personal information.
HTTP applauds these ISP’s proactive approach to consumer privacy protection. But we also know that there is a complex multi-layered system of user behavior data-mining and that most consumers never imagine this is based on their online activities. Because of this, the laudable privacy protection policies announced by AT&T and Verizon must become an Internet “Code of Conduct” that is embraced by all Internet businesses with access to private information including search companies, browser firms, advertising networks, and other ISPs.
Should these Internet companies fail to recognize their social responsibiliy to respect and protect individual privacy rights, they run the risk of having a re-elected Congress come back after the November elections to mandate on-line privacy protections.
The Internet and the freedoms it has enjoyed has created business models that have helped our economy grow, and it has an enormous potential to further contribute to our social and economic advancement – but not at the cost of losing our right to privacy.
Lastly, to truly empower and protect the privacy of Internet users, government, businesses, and public sector groups must also do more to further public education about online safety and privacy issues.