Report aims to protect consumer privacy online

Posted Jan. 16, 2011, at 6:54 p.m.

If you think that surfing the Web is a harmless pastime, think again.

The Consumer Federation of America recently said people’s track records on social networking sites were used in some cases to determine whether they’re creditworthy. Big Brother and The Matrix, meet Monopoly.

“Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change” is the title of a preliminary staff report to the Federal Trade Commission.

The report has broad implications for the way businesses convince us to buy things. (It will strike some readers as ironic that a federal agency — painted by some as a snarling monster set on devouring every bit of citizen information — may take a lead role in helping us protect our privacy.)

The report states the FTC’s goal clearly: “To protect consumers’ personal information and ensure that they have the confidence to take advantage of the many benefits of the ever-changing marketplace.”

The key word here is “confidence,” and we might take a moment to reflect on the erosion of confidence by target marketers.

The transition of much of our retail sector to online selling has had a crushing effect on the mass media, which used to be the major vehicle of advertisers. Reaching the most readers, listeners and viewers for the fewest dollars made the advertising world go round.

Now all media have felt the sting of competition from Web-based marketers. The e-sellers have invested serious time and money into figuring out how to make it seem they’re doing all they can just for you.

That’s why those cute ads appear along the margins of your computer screen right after you have pointed your browser at the latest widget. Makers of the competing widget explain in a nanosecond why theirs is better and why they will give you the deal of the week on it. Search for another widget and you will find even more ads they are sure you will be interested in.

We users “pull” information we want; sellers “push” their products based on the use to which we put our personal computers. Pull and push technologies combine to form the unending infomercial that is our e-reality.

Combine the sales pitches and customized news bits with a social networking explosion and you can almost feel your privacy evaporate. Which brings us back to the FTC staff report, issued last month and open for comment until Jan. 31 (search the agency’s site at www.ftc.gov for the full report).

The report calls for some major changes, including:

· Requiring a “privacy by design” approach by businesses, to put privacy safeguards ahead of profits.

· Clarifying which practices need consumer consent, and giving the option of triggering a “Do Not Track” option.

· Making tracking policies more transparent and informing consumers how they have been tracked and what information has been gathered.

Some critics say the FTC staff report doesn’t go far enough. They fear that the commission will weaken the suggestions, and that real protection won’t come until Congress puts teeth in legislated safeguards.

Researchers at Stanford University are working on antitracking technology. You can read about their work at http://donottrack.us.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at contacexdir@live.com.

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