Today and tomorrow, the Federal Trade Commission is conducting a “town hall” meeting on privacy issues and behavioral advertising. Except for ideas being floated that might be actually harmful, this thing should be ignored.
First of all, I always find it a little bit annoying when a federal agency holds what are essentially legislative hearings. There is a Congress – it’s authorized in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. If an issue is important enough to be the subject of national policy, the Congress should look at it, not a federal agency. After all, the federal bureaucracy isn’t listed in the Constitution until . . . um . . . oh! It’s not mentioned in the Constitution at all!
But if you don’t care about government conforming to the rule of law, this issue – ‘behavioral advertising’ – is something like ten years old. Behavioral advertising is just trying to learn Web surfers’ interests and serve them advertising that meets those interests. There are privacy issues there, but they’re not new, or even terribly interesting. One can’t help but assume that the bureaucrats and lobbyists involved in this thing are churning the issue just to maintain their own relevance and budget.
The privacy issues that matter – they did ten years ago, but much more so now – are about privacy from government. Sure, data collected by the private sector can be taken by the government, but that is not a reason to retard the private sector. It demands controls on the government.
Then there are the affirmatively bad ideas. A group of the usual suspects have submitted a proposal for a “Do Not Track” list to the Federal Trade Commission, modeled on the popular “Do Not Call” list that was implemented a few years ago.
The analogy between this two is . . . well, there’s no analogy. “Do Not Call” actually promotes seclusion more than true privacy (which, in its strongest sense, is control of information). The concern with Web tracking is control.
Because of the disanalogy, this kind of thing would not get uptake like Do Not Call did. Tracking is not annoying, so lots of consumers don’t know about it – and therefore aren’t annoyed by it.
Reducing tracking would mean reducing the value of advertising, which would impede Web publishing and the provision of Web services. Shrinking the utility of the Internet does not seem like a good idea.
Then there’s the stuff from the unintended consequences file. A “Do Not Track” infrastructure would easily be converted to censorship, a colleague of mine suggested to me today. And Congress has never seen an Internet censorship law that it wouldn’t pass.
This whole thing is more dumb than dangerous, but I think we’re due a tax refund, and a number of Internet companies could probably downsize their government relations staffs and spending.
Update: Writing earlier, I declined to deride having a “town hall” meeting at a federal agency conference room in Washington, D.C., but just now they began a “roundtable” discussion with panelists seated at a row of square tables facing the audience. What’s the next fiction? That the attendees are “the American people”?