Lauren Weinstein on Privacy & “Do Not Track”

by on May 2, 2011 · 2 comments

I’ve already Tweeted about it, but if you are following Internet privacy debates and have not yet had the chance to read Lauren Weinstein‘s new paper, “Do-Not-Track, Doctor Who, and a Constellation of Confusion,” it is definitely worth a look.  Weinstein, founder of the Privacy Forum, zeroes in on two related issue that I have made the focus of much of my work on this issue: (1) the fact that Do Not Track is seemingly viewed by some as a silver-bullet quick fix to online privacy concerns but will really be far more complicated in practice to enforce, and (2) that Do Not Track regulation will likely have many unintended consequences, most of which are going unexplored by proponents.

For example, Weinstein says:

Do-not-track in actuality encompasses an immensely heterogeneous mosaic of issues and considerations, not appropriately subject to simplistic approaches or “quick fix” solutions.   Approaching this area without a realistic appreciation of such facts is fraught with risks and the potential for major undesirable collateral damages to businesses, organizations, and individuals. Attempts to portray these controversies as “black or white” topics subject to rapid or in some cases even unilaterally imposed resolutions may be politically expedient, but are ultimately both childish and dangerous. […]

Above all, we should endeavor to remember that tracking issues both on and off the Internet are in reality part of a complicated whole, a multifaceted  set of problems — and very importantly — potentials as well. The decisions that we make now regarding these issues will likely have far-ranging implications and effects on the Internet for many years to come, perhaps for decades.

Absolutely correct. He also argues that:

Rather than view do-not-track and tracking in general as binary choices, or even as an overly simplistic one-dimensional continuum — with “no tracking” and “tracking” at the good and evil ends of the spectrum respectively — a multidimensional and so significantly more nuanced view would seem to make a great deal better logical sense. For each of us, our comfort levels with “tracking” as it may be most broadly defined — both in Internet and non-Internet contexts — will vary widely depending on specific details and circumstances.

Quite right. I made similar arguments in my February filing to the Federal Trade Commission as part of it Do Not Track proceeding.

Weinstein also asks an important question here:

Even while some divisions of government are proselytizing for the rapid adoption of risky and overly simplistic do-not-track mechanisms that are more akin to sledgehammers than balanced control methodologies, and aimed particularly at ad personalization networks — others in government are pushing hard for vast and comprehensive data retention laws that would require ISPs and Web services to record and maintain detailed records of virtually all Web browsing, email, and other activities. … Why is there such a focus on do-not-track in the relatively innocuous ad serving sector, but often so much hypocritical disregard of government’s desire for encompassing tracking in other contexts that carry enormously larger potentials for abuses?

To be fair, however, I do think that many of the advocates of Do Not Track regulation are also focused on government access to data but I think they sometimes fail to adequately distinguish between the “enormously larger potentials for abuses” associated with government data collection and what Weinstein rightly regards as the far less serious issue of “the relatively innocuous ad serving sector.”  There is a world of difference between what government collects and uses private data to accomplish versus what the private sector does with it. As I pointed out in my latest Forbes column this week, “Governments possess unique powers the private sector lacks, such as taxation, surveillance, fines, and imprisonment.” By contrast, private companies mostly collect data to sell us a better mousetrap at a better price.  It’s hard to see how that is a “harm” in the same league with what government officials and agencies would like to do with data. In fact, that’s really a benefit to consumers.

Anyway, make sure to read Weinstein’s entire essay.  I have not yet seen any responses to it but I very much look forward to seeing what proponents of Do Not Track regulation have to say about his very sharp piece.

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