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User Consent: Just an Afterthought to Behavioral Tracking


Can you read?

Letters released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee reveal that many internet and broadband companies use targeted-ad technology without clearly informing users.

The largest online ad firm of all, Google, said it tracks web-surfing behavior across affiliate sites. And this isn't the first such outing: two months ago, The New York Times revealed Google uses previous search activity to serve ads on existing searches.

Hoping to cover its bases against privacy advocates, the company recently added a "More Details" link to search results so customers can see how their data is used to refine searches.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee letters responded to a bipartisan inquiry of how over 30 online firms gather data to target consumers. Privacy advocates and select lawmakers claim the findings could serve as the foundation for an online privacy law.

"Increasingly, there are no limits technologically as to what a company can do in terms of collecting information […] and then selling it […] to other providers," said committee member Edward J. Markey (D-MA).

"Our responsibility is to make sure that we create a law that, regardless of the technology, includes a set of legal guarantees that consumers have with respect to their information."

Next year, Markey and his colleagues plan to present new legislation to address potential privacy breaches, a document the Washington Post dubbed a "sort of online-privacy Bill of Rights." It would require companies to provide a clear opt-in feature for consumers that want their behavior or personal data tracked for ad purposes.

The current rule of thumb is to auto-opt-in users, then provide (well-hidden) means for them to opt out. Internet service provider Embarq, criticized for using consumer data to serve behaviorally-targeted ads without disclosure, asserted it changed its privacy policy before implementing the technology. The underlying assumption is that if customers were worried about how their data is used, they could have read the privacy policy — thereby learning about its targeting practices — at their leisure.

Not all committee leaders favor the online privacy regulation, arguing it could harm small companies' ability to reach potential clients. Representative Cliff Stearns (R-FL) suggested a middle road: self-regulation that focuses on transparency and choice.

Yahoo recently announced more visible opt-out options for ad targeting. It committed to advertise these new capabilities, available at month's end, with public service announcements and clearly-marked text across its online network.

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