The New York Times’ Glib Call for Internet and Software Regulation

by on January 30, 2011 · 7 comments

You have to read all the way to the end to get exactly what the New York Times is getting at in its Sunday editorial, “Netizens Gain Some Privacy.”

Congress should require all advertising and tracking companies to offer consumers the choice of whether they want to be followed online to receive tailored ads, and make that option easily chosen on every browser.

That means Congress—or the federal agency it punts to—would tell authors of Internet browsing software how they are allowed to do their jobs. Companies producing browser software that didn’t conform to federal standards would be violating the law.

In addition, any Web site that tailored ads to their users’ interests, or the networks that now generally provide that service, would be subject to federal regulation and enforcement that would of necessity involve investigation of the data they collect and what they do with it.

Along with existing browser capabilities (Tools > Options > Privacy tab > cookie settings), forthcoming amendments to browsers will give users more control over the information they share with the sites they visit. That exercise of control is the ultimate do-not-track. It’s far preferable to the New York Times‘ idea, which has the Web user issuing a request not to be tracked and wondering whether government regulators can produce obedience.

[I got enough push-back to a recent post arguing the existence of market nimbleness in the browser area that I’m unsure of the thesis I expressed there. The better explanation of what’s going on may be that regulatory pressure is moving browser authors and others to meet the peculiar demands of the pro-regulatory community. The reason they have waited to act until now is because they do not perceive consumers’ interests to be met by protections against tailored advertising. The question of what meets consumers’ interests won’t be answered if regulation supplants markets, of course.]

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