Americans Need To Take A More Prominent Role To Protect Their Browsers Against Google’s Tracking

The Obama administration’s consumer Privacy Bill of Rights initiative is a very small step to a desperately needed legislation to comprehensively protect Americans from Internet tracking. Currently Americans have hardly any protections against irresponsible websites and tracking companies. The United Sates is one of the few developed countries in the world where there are no real restrictions on the Internet. In fact, websites are not even required to have privacy policies and they are free to collect just about any private information of Americans to their heart’s content- real names, credit card information, online buying habits, what websites you visited, what you “liked”, your location, your computer information, etc.

So when the White House unveiled the online privacy proposal many were optimistic, including myself. Many are still optimistic that after the Commerce Department finishes meeting with tracking companies, Internet companies such as Google, and consumer advocacy groups that some real change will come out of all this.

But are we just kidding ourselves? Should we really expect real and comprehensive protections to come out these meetings? Do you really think Google (which makes over 90% of its revenues from advertising) and those tracking companies will really allow stringent legislation to pass? I sure do not think so.

There have been attempts to have laws passed for years and they have resulted in nothing so far. In fact, bipartisan members of the US Senate have already introduced privacy protection bills before, including Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain. Kerry said,

“Since the 1990s, Congress has been talking about this issue and complaining about abuses but doing little to stop them. Instead of continuing the now monthly exercise of publicly scolding companies, we need to make Congress establish common sense rules of the road that protect consumers.”

He is so correct! It’s definitely common sense to want to protect vulnerable Americans from spying and intrusive data harvesting. Yet, something so obvious is so difficult to accomplish. Why is that?

Of course, much of it has to do with Google’s intensive lobbying. I wrote more on this in a past post – click here

Just last May, Google sent a strongly worded letter to the California State Senate opposing that state’s plans to introduce a stringent Social Networking Act bill.

And now, all of sudden, Google has a change of heart when it supported President Obama’s consumer privacy bill? It’s obviously because Google knows that the bill won’t change anything significantly. It’s all a public relations ploy to pacify Americans to make it look like they will get real protections – not a chance.

Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum and former chief privacy officer of DoubleClick (the now Google owned online advertising company) said,

“I think there are a lot of companies that have been concerned by the recent litigation and constant criticism who see this as an opportunity to be at the table and help shape solutions. There have been opt-out options that have been around for 10 years. They run, roughly, at about a 1% opt-out rate. ‘Do Not Track’ isn’t going to make more people opt-out. You still have to go in and adjust the settings and most of us don’t want to bother with it. What it will do is actually make that setting work…if we try to solve all of the privacy issues for the whole industry, we’ll probably be arguing for the next 50 years.”

Google and the tracking companies know that there is mounting pressure for better security on the web and now they think that it would be best if they are allowed in the conversation to produce tough laws – this way, they will have opportunity to not only look good to the public but also have the chance to significantly water-down any privacy bill.

Remember that the proposed privacy plan unveiled by the White House is strictly voluntary. Companies can reject it if they want to, but most won’t because they don’t want to look too bad in front of the public. Once they accept to abide by the bill, they will have to stick by it or face punishment by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for deceptive practices. But the FTC, as noted by EPIC, has so far failed to punish Google for violating its consent order. The FTC doesn’t really have much weight.

Also, remember that the proposed Do Not Track feature will not block tracking. All it does is that it will signal to tracking companies that you wish to not be tracked. However, the tracking companies can still track you and see what you do – they just won’t give you personalized advertisements and make it as obvious to you. They will still have ability to track you under what they call “market research”.

The Do Not Track proposal is at minimum a way to share your preference with tracking companies and Google – but it’s also a dangerous false sense of security.

The best things you can do for yourself right now is the following:

1. Use a secure browser – one that has good default settings that protects your security and privacy. It’s good if a browser has anti-tracking functionality and if it blocks third-party cookies from being set on your browser. Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari do great jobs. According to PC Magazine, Internet Explorer 9 has the best anti-tracking tools available – click here

2. You need extra protection for your browser. Get an anti-tracking add-on downloaded to your browser that blocks tracking, full-stop. These anti-tracking add-ons will give you a list of exactly who is attempting to track you and they will block them immediately. They don’t just ask tracking companies to respect your preferences, the add-on will immediately go right in and block tracking anyway – no questions asked. I wrote about this before – click here

3. Block cookies! Make sure your browser is set to block third-party cookies. The privacy advocacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has six steps to help protect you better. Step 4 illustrates how you can make sure cookies are blocked on your chosen browser – click here

4. If you use Google’s web browser (Chrome) or toolbar – immediately go and uninstall it right now. Of all the major browsers, Google does the least to protect you against tracking. In fact, Google doesn’t even have an anti-tracking functionality on its browser – the only major browser on market which fails to do so. Asking Google to protect you from tracking is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

 5. Finally, you have to proactively fight for your rights! That means you can’t let Google and the tracking companies dilute the important conversations that will be happening in the coming months, which could eventually lead to comprehensive privacy legislation for all Americans. If you let Google dominate the conversation and lobby their way out of real protections for Americans, you will let Google win. You need to actively participate in this struggle by writing and calling up your state representatives in government and the White House. Say that you want real protections, not just feel good stuff!

For more information, please read these articles:

Computerworld, “Obama online privacy plan faces challenges” – click here

Bloomberg, “Obama Web Privacy Framework Boosts Chances for Rules With Teeth” – click here

Time, “Why Google and Others Are On Board with Obama’s Privacy Bill of Rights” – click here

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