Every day, it seems, we learn ofanother marketer’s innovation enabling Web-based firms to track ourevery move.What products are we researching?What are we buying?Whatgames are we playing?What online payment methods do we use?If we’retracked by GPS or phone signal, where are we?Which merchants wantto know we are there?Yes, it’s getting scary out there forindividuals.Despite the fact that the largest web-based firms allprofess to protect the privacy of users, somehow the enforcementhas failed in multiple instances.
Recent press suggests that therisks continue to grow.An October 10 article in the New YorkTimes raises the prospect of increased exposure for individualswhen HTML 5 begins to be adopted.(“New Web Code Draws Concern OverPrivacy Risks,” by Tanzina Vega)Although this next version of theweb -coding language reportedly incorporates many features thatwill make life easier for users, it also greatly expands thecapability for collection and storage on the user’s own harddrive of substantial amounts of personal information andweb-activity history, under the control of (and accessible by)network third parties rather than the user himself.Yikes!
Battle lines are being drawn, andtroops being rallied, by both sides of the privacy debate. OnDecember 1, the Federal Trade Commission released a new reportcalling for increased regulation of data access and protection ofprivacy rights online.The report suggests a national “do not trackonline” opt-out mechanism, similar to the “do not call” registrythat already limits telephone solicitation, but implemented locallyby a setting on the user’s internet-enabled device.In the USCongress on December 2, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Tradeand Consumer Protection held hearings on the issue. In thatcontext, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (who hasbeen elected to join the next Congress) submitted testimony aboutthe “deeply disturbing and disquieting” practice of web-basedentities collecting and utilizing data on individuals without theirknowledge.Other legislators have also indicated their intentions toinitiate or support more consumer protection in this space.Clearly,the momentum is building to enact some sort of legislated privacyright.
Where is the opposition?Alsorallying its forces.Privately-owned Facebook has been a target ofmuch criticism in the past year for its sometimes callous and/orindifferent attitude to the privacy rights of its users.It hasattempted to refresh its image with new privacy-managementcapabilities introduced in 2010, but many Facebook users find thetools difficult to manage.Furthermore, Facebook has been forced toacknowledge that numerous of its developer-partners have violatedits rules with respect to third party use of the data associatedwith specific individuals.Facebook has not been blind to the risksthat privacy protectionists present to its business model.Accordingto a recent Bloomberg News report by Sara Forden, Facebook’sWashington office, launched with one junior staffer in 2007, hasexpanded to six, including some recently-hired, high profilelobbyists.They are currently recruiting for two more relativelysenior Washington positions.
Facebook is not the only vendorwhose business model is vulnerable to privacy regulations, but italmost certainly has the deepest pockets.There is no doubt thatmany of their partners, as well as unrelated innovative startups,will ultimately be induced to enter the fray. The debate is justbeginning; it should make for interesting politics in 2011.