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Do Online Advertisers’ New Self-Policing Recommendations Go Too Far Or Not Far Enough?

Posted on | July 2, 2009 | No Comments

Whatever Happened to “On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Dog?”

Are Internet users THIS ticked off at web site developers that they want regulations that turn off the convenience of what the Internet is all about?  Or have web sites finally gone too far in their collection of visitor data that we need formal restrictions on what can be collected, and how it’s used?  And will these new self-regulating policies allow online advertisers to outrun the FTC’s threats to restrict them?

This long-raging debate struck a milestone this week with the announcement of formal “self-regulating” policies introduced by four major advertising industry trade associations (the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, the Direct Marketing Association, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau), and a coalition of corporate sponsors. 

The group has banded together to develop regulations that, among other things, propose that all web sites use an icon or special verbiage to point visitors to a site that explains what data is being collected on them and give them an option to opt out of ALL behavioral tracking. The regulations go on to stipulate that no information be collected about children under 13 years of age or from sites directed at children under 13.

Huh?  How do I know if a visitor is 13 or 130?  Duh, could it be because you tell me? What if I lie? AND, who will really pay attention to these rules?  Will the bad apples, who have already spoiled it for responsible online vendors, even heed these new rules? Don’t get your hopes up!  

Yet, here’s a thought: Do we really need these regulations?  More importantly: do we need the FTC to oversee these – or more restrictive — policies?

The whole concept is based on the assumptions that Internet users don’t often know what information advertisers are collecting on them. BALONEY!  I know when I give an advertiser my credit card number and passcode that they’ve got it and will use it.  I know when I list my home address and phone number that that information can be viewed and shared on the Internet.

So, how’s this:  If you don’t want your personal information stored, shared, and used, don’t put it on the web.  Isn’t it really that simple?

Maybe not!  The Internet seems to have encouraged an ongoing trend – good, I think – for greater openness and sharing. And it seems to be more prevalent in younger generations than among people of my parents’ age and even mine.  Are we just skeptics…or more practical?  Do we see the dangers lurking around the virtual corner BECAUSE we’ve witnessed them in the brick-and-mortar world?  As more and more people adopt “Internet behavior” do we – the ‘protective classes’ – become less restrictive too, adopting a sense of ‘safety in numbers?’  Is it a slippery slope and do we really need the FTC to put in speed bumps to slow us down… or at least warn us of “Danger, Will Rogers?” 

I don’t know. As I write this, even I am shifting my position, because I don’t think self-policing works.  I WANT the convenience of the Internet now that I’ve experienced it. So, it’s hard for me to NOT give up my personal information.  I LIKE having emails sent to me suggesting discounts on travel and products based on my searching on various web sites for possible vacation destinations or gifts for my friends.  But, yes, I’m afraid – very afraid – if I stumble onto a porn site inadvertently that someone will think I’m a pervert or child pornographer. 

Does having the FTC lurk over responsible – and not-so-responsible – web sites’ shoulders really help make me feel safer on the web?  I don’t know.

What I do know is this: On the Internet as in real life, I am a person, not a dog!  I put my money and jewelry away in a bank for safe keeping.  I lock my house if I want to help protect its contents. I have keys to lock my car. And I don’t go into areas where I feel unsafe.  Shouldn’t I be as diligent with my personal data?  And, if I give it out, shouldn’t I know that it’s safe?  Will self-policing or FTC regulations give that to me? I frankly doubt it…

The truth is: I believe that the Internet has introduced new behaviors and a new way of interacting, the underpinning of which is a new requirement for online trust. Is this realistic?  Probably not, but this, really, is what the debate should be about.

For more information about the new recommendations see the news release posted on Reuters:

Opinion submitted by Carol Wolicki

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