Advocates call for halt to online profiling

Jennifer Mack, ZDNet

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce will hold a public workshop Monday with privacy advocates and online advertisers to discuss the use of online profiling.

On Friday, privacy groups urged the FTC to immediately halt all online profiling pending an investigation, and speed up legislation that would protect consumer's privacy. The practice of creating user profiles involves gathering information on users' surfing habits, which can be used to deliver advertising targeted to people's specific interests.

"The technology that's been developed over the past two years for profiling and collecting information about Web surfers has become so intrusive that these profiles are an unacceptable violation of consumer privacy," explained Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a privacy advocacy group. "The government needs to protect consumers from having this information assembled without their consent and control."

Catlett and others say the industry's attempts to regulate itself when it comes to online privacy have been unsuccessful. He points to the industry's TRUSTe organization as an example of failed regulation. TRUSTe evaluates its members' privacy policies and allows cooperating Web sites to post a TRUSTe logo promoting their compliance.

"TRUSTe doesn't do anything very useful," said Catlett. "The worst privacy violators are not going to pay TRUSTe to be looked at. So there's nothing to protect consumers from really bad violators."

Online advertisers often point to users' ability to turn off information gathering "cookies" as the best way to stop sites from collecting personal data. Cookies are special tools used by Web sites that collect information about who you are and what you do when you're online. They can be deactivated by switching them off in your browser options. But Andrew Shen, policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, believes expecting users to know how to turn off the cookie option is unreasonable.

Unreasonable burden

"The burden of privacy background is totally backward, said Shen. "It shouldn't be up to consumers to protect themselves."

The privacy groups attending Monday's meeting with the FTC feel that the industry's standard "opt-out" policy, which requires consumers to take steps to prevent their data from being gathered, is unfair. They want Web users to be notified before information is collected and give their consent. The alternative, they feel, is the destruction of the Internet's free and open environment.

"Everything on the Internet is going to be targeted towards you," said Shen. "You'll no longer be able to just browse the Net anonymously. So, in some ways, profiling really defeats what the Internet is all about."

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