When you’re on the web you might notice the ads seem conspicuously on point. They might be on topics you have searched for or are connected to where you live or work.
Just in case you thought it was coincidence, be assured that it is quite by design thanks to cookies — little bits of information collected by your browser — and other memories your software shares.
The idea of companies collecting information about your interests, habits and other details about what you do online has privacy rights advocates pushing for restrictions and disclosures to consumers so you can simply reject the practice when you choose to.
Senator John D. Rockefeller introduced a bill consumer advocates are hailing for requiring websites to allow people to opt-out of being tracked.
“Recent reports of privacy invasions have made it imperative that we do more to put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to their personal information,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “I believe consumers have a right to decide whether their information can be collected and used online.”
The bill has generated excitement among those who advocate for privacy and consumer protection.
“We hear a lot about consumer empowerment, but this legislation would actually give real power to consumers who want to keep their online activities private,” said Susan Grant, the Consumer Federation of America’s director of consumer protection.
The bill calls for the Federal Trade Commission to set standards that would give consumers a simple tool to say they don’t want their information to be tracked, with an exception for services that would require such information to operate.
“Right now, the privacy interests of individuals and the interests of advertisers and others who may want their personal information are woefully out of balance,” Grant said. “This legislation would enable the FTC to strike the right balance and ensure that privacy is respected and protected.”
California is considering a similar law that would establish penalties for companies that continue to collect data against the wishes of consumers.
Not surprisingly, the web’s big players are not happy. A large coalition of companies — including Google and Facebook and ranging from American Express to the Motion Picture Association of America — banded together in California to oppose that law, saying consumers already have the ability to stop the collection of cookies through their browsers and other means. They produced an opposition letter that says the bill unfairly targets advertising and would be harmful to the economy. The companies also said that it would be inappropriate for a state to try to regulate the web, since it crosses all borders.
Plus, the group said, by taking away the targeted advertising, the companies would be losing that revenue and consumers could lose some of the free content they’ve come to enjoy that has been paid for by those ads — not to mention the innovations based on the collected information.“The measure would negatively affect consumers who have come to expect rich content and free services through the Internet…,” the letter said. “Features like automatic spell check, product recommendations, real time traffic mapping and search suggestions were developed using customer data in a safe and unintrusive way. Prohibiting the collection and use of this data would severely harm future innovation in the state and harm consumers.”
Laws like this come down largely to whether the public can trust consumers to honor their choices when they decide against having their information monitored and collected.
If you want to limit tracking now, you can set your browser’s privacy setting to “private” or to not collect cookies — which can cause some problems for you on some sites that you’ve been using. You can also go to the Network Advertising Initiative to opt out of behavioral advertising networks they’re affiliated with. And the Digital Advertising Alliance offers its take on collecting cookies and the choice consumers have.