In the online battle for privacy rights versus advertising, privacy advocates today drew a line in the sand with requests that Congress draft legislation limiting the practice of behavioral targeting. 

A group of 10 consumer privacy groups is urging Congress to draft a new bill for online privacy this fall. And while it is unlikely that all of the group's requests will go into effect, it is yet another sign that the future of behavioral targeting does not look bright.

The groups, which include the Center for Digital Democracy, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Consumers Union, wrote to Representatives Henry Waxman and Joe Barton, chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Among their requests were protection for information, even if it isn't "personally identifiable"; a prohibition on the use of sensitive information related to areas like health, finances, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and politics in behavioral tracking; a ban on collecting children's online behavior; a requirement that data collected cannot be repurposed without explicit consent; and data security guarantees.

Last month, David C. Vladeck, the new head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, called certain behavioral targeting practices "an affront to dignity" and the privacy advocates today borrowed his terminology.

Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection at Consumer Federation of America, says it boils down to “respect for human dignity.”  She says that online behavioral tracking can be used to “target vulnerable consumers for high-price loans, bogus health cures and other potentially harmful products and services.”

The group also asked the FTC to create a "behavioral tracker" registry, where consumers can obtain and tweak their personal data online.

In their letter, the group wrote:

"Click by click, consumers’ online activities – the searches they make, the Web pages they visit,
the content they view, the videos they watch and their other interactions on social networking
sites, the content of emails they send and receive, how they spend money online, their physical
locations using mobile Web devices, and other data – are logged into an expanding profile and
analyzed in order to target them with more 'relevant' advertising."

While the group is clearly trying to prevent future privacy violations, it's clear from their phrasing that they don't hold much enthusiasm for targeted advertising.

While many consumers care about their online privacy in theory, faced with pertinent decisions on individual websites, they often simply choose the default setting when it comes to their data. Due to that fact, many think that the FTC will require a default opt-in for behavioral targeting.

That decision could greatly hinder the utility of the data that advertisers and publishers are collecting online. Online advertisers may not be looking forward to rehauling their business practices, but depending on how Congress comes down on the issue, they may not have a choice.

The one silver lining may be that as consumers online become more and more comfortable sharing their information publicly online, advertisers may not need to look so far to get the data they're looking for.

Meghan Keane

Published 2 September, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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