Yesterday, the Obama administration made a big announcement to help Internet users protect their data from third parties who collect it without your permission. The White House unveiled a consumer Privacy Bill of Rights proposal that is said to be intended to give online users back control of their personal data. Now, this might sound like great news at first, but don’t get too excited just yet. Let’s take a closer:
The Privacy Bill of Rights does not impose any immediate new obligations on online companies. President Obama said it was part of a broader plan to give Americans more control over how their personal data is used on the Internet. It consists of seven basic protections consumers should expect from companies:
Consumers would have control over the kind of data companies collect, companies must be transparent about data usage plans and respect the context in which it is provided and disclosed. Companies would have to ensure secure and responsible handling of the data and be accountable for strong privacy measures. It also calls for reasonable limits on the personal data that online companies can try to collect and retain and the ability of consumers to access and ensure the accuracy of their own data.
The Privacy Bill of Rights has received the backing of major Internet companies, including Google. It has also received the backing of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), which represents over 400 media, marketing, and technology companies. The vast majority of advertisements you see on the Internet are from members of the DAA. Their involvement in this seems like a great thing, so far – but let’s keep digging…
The Obama administration wants the proposed Privacy Bill of Rights to function as a blueprint for future comprehensive legislation that can hopefully make it through Congress. Several online privacy bills have been introduced before and have failed to gain much traction over many years. Americans hardly have any protections online whatsoever – and don’t get me started with the lack of protections on mobile devices, which is even worse! By the way, in comparison, European data protection laws have been developed since the 1980s and are much more stringent.
In addition to the seven core principles of the Privacy Bill of Rights, the DAA has finally agreed to allow a ‘Do Not Track’ button to be added to browsers. The browser-based header will signal, to companies that gather your personal data, your preferences. If you indicate that you don’t want to be tracked, the DAA claims that they will respect your preference – to an extent.
But hang on a second!
This do-not-track button has been resisted for years by the DAA and Google – why the sudden change of heart? Excuse me for being suspicious about this, but why the heck would a known privacy violator like Google be all too eager to participate in this initiative to protect personal data? It doesn’t make sense, folks.
Remember, Google is the same company that is facing a 20 year consent order with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating the privacy of users; it is the same company that had to pay $500 million to the US government after being found aiding and abetting a con artist; it is the same company that just recently deliberately bypassed privacy settings on Apple’s and Microsoft’s browsers so that they can collect information of their users; it is the same damn company that refused to have this do-not-track button on their Chrome browser for years, while all the other major browsers adopted the do-not-track technology ages ago!
Now you expect me to suddenly buy into this believe that Google wants to do what is best for our privacy – a week before it is about to change its privacy policies so that it makes it easier to sell your personal data to advertisers? Please! I ain’t buying the garbage Google is selling – not a chance!
Julia Angwin, writer for The Wall Street Journal, brought up something important:
“The new do-not-track button isn’t going to stop all Web tracking. The companies have agreed to stop using the data about people’s Web browsing habits to customize ads, and have agreed not to use the data for employment, credit, health-care or insurance purposes. But the data can still be used for some purposes such as ‘market research’ and ‘product development’ and can still be obtained by law enforcement officers.”
So basically, what she is saying is that this do-not-track button is BS. It won’t do anything worthwhile. First of all, it is completely voluntary for the companies to adopt the do-not-track button and if they end up letting users opt-out of tracking, it isn’t going to stop the tracking. It will only limit the amount of personalized advertisements you see. For many these companies, whose sole business purpose it is to harvest your personal data and sell it, they will still see everything you do.
It was recently reported that the American retailing company Target was targeting pregnant women with creepy advertisements of things a pregnant woman might need. The only problem was that these pregnant women never informed Target about their pregnancy and were creeped out that Target not only knew they were expecting a child, but could actually freakishly guess the due date. When Target noticed that people were starting to get creeped out they decided to still send targeted advertisements, but made sure to not make it so obvious. A Target executive revealed to the New York Times:
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly…then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance”
Target was able to do this because they matched customers with an ID number linked to their credit cards or other personal information. You can read more on this by clicking here.
Anyway, the point is that Google and those data analytics companies that say they will respect your information think you’re stupid. They think you won’t know better if they give you a useless button to pacify you, while they continue on doing what they have always been doing. And, unlike Target, the Internet is A LOT more invasive! The Internet is the Wild West, where there are basically no laws to protect you and it’s much easier to obtain personal information. At least Target only collects data on buying habits of customers from their own store – Google collects personal data of you everywhere on the Internet.
Mozilla Firefox, was the first browser to allow users to use a do-not-track button. Internet Explorer followed Firefox’s example soon after, and then Apple’s Safari joined. All major browsers had this functionality enabled, with the exception of Google’s Chrome browser. Mozilla executives released a statement yesterday saying that they were “encouraged” by the news of a Privacy Bill of Rights and felt proud to say that they were first to implement a do-not-track button. However, they made sure to say that while they feel optimistic about the move to increased privacy for users, they will avoid fully endorsing the proposed do-not-track button that the DAA says it will produce in about nine months:
“We want to continue to see Do Not Track evolve through the Internet’s rich tradition of open development and collaborative innovation. Do Not Track is too important to become a product of closed-door meetings rather than through open, multi-stakeholder efforts…If Do Not Track fails to materialize as a productive tool, we’ll look to develop other technical measures to ensure that users’ privacy preferences are respected”
This button will not result in anything good for users and Mozilla already pretty much knows it. This proposed do-not-track button might actually create more harm than good. If people assume that they are protected from tracking, when in actuality they are not, they will let their guard down. People will stop asking for more protections for their privacy online and on mobile devices – while, Google and the DAA will give each other a high-fives for pacifying the public. Phew! No more annoying privacy advocates giving them a hard time!
But not so fast, Google! We’re on to you!
We don’t need a watered-down, meet me halfway, a day too late and a dollar too short privacy bill of rights! We need real change! We need comprehensive and solid protections! We need to completely stop tracking, period; full-stop!
Here is something to think about: even though Mozilla Firefox was the first to implement a Do Not Track button for their users, only 18% of mobile users and only 7% of desktop users activated the functionality on Firefox. It was available for Firefox users for awhile now, and only a small percentage took advantage of it. And guess what – Google and the DAA are well aware of this fact. An opt-in button will not reach the masses, and a useless button will not go far enough to protect users.
When the White House made its announcement yesterday, the true winners were not vulnerable Internet users – the winners are Google and the DAA who were so giddy and self-congratulatory.
For more information, I highly recommend these articles:
- The Wall Street Journal, “Web Firms to Adopt ‘No Track’ Button” – click here
- The Washington Post, “Voluntary guidelines for Web privacy backed by Obama administration” – click here
- Techcrunch, “Mozilla: Welcome Google and Obama, We Invented ‘Do Not Track’ A Year Ago” – click here
- PCWorld, “Obama’s Internet Bill Of Rights Will Be Hard to Enforce: Here’s Why” – click here
- PCWorld, “Universal ‘Do Not Track’ Button: A Recipe for Disappointment” – click here
- Wired, “White House Privacy Bill of Rights Brought to You by Years of Online Debacles – click here