Washington is gearing up to take a more active role in regulating Internet privacy, responding to growing public concern about the amount of personal information being collected and shared without users’ knowledge. There may be a role for the federal government in promoting transparency and limiting unwanted disclosures, particularly those made to government agencies. But policymakers should focus on real harms, not imaginary ones, and remember that rapidly changing technology could quickly render their strictures obsolete.
Until now, the federal government has relied largely on the private sector to set and enforce standards for protecting privacy online. As early as this week, however, the Commerce Department is expected to release a report that declares these efforts at self-regulation insufficient. And the Federal Trade Commission, which has been conducting its own review, may require that sites offer Internet users a simple way to block their personal information or browsing habits from being collected, if they so choose.
Much of the hand-wringing about the information shared online seems to stem from a misunderstanding of how advertising networks work and the role they perform. In most cases, advertisers have no interest in knowing which individuals are receiving their pitches — they just want to make sure that they’re directing the right message to each group. That sort of “profiling” by ad networks can be good for consumers because it cuts the amount of irrelevant ads they confront, while also generating the revenue needed to let sites provide more content for free.
Problems occur when sites disclose information that users had expected them to keep private, or when information collected about a consumer’s browsing causes them to be treated less favorably — for example, when it’s used to steer them to credit cards that carry higher interest rates. Federal law already may provide remedies for such abuses, though, so part of the solution is in better enforcement of existing rules.
Still, the Internet’s interactivity, which allows sites to extract information surreptitiously from the people who peruse their content, makes it fundamentally different from other information outlets. And aside from restrictions on collecting information from children, federal law provides no guiding principles for online privacy. Although Washington shouldn’t try to micromanage the Net, it should make clear that websites have a duty to help users manage their personal information effectively, giving them the chance to understand the tradeoffs they’re making and to choose wisely.