Tags: wem | monitoring

Web Firms Monitor Users Without Consent

Tuesday, 12 Aug 2008 02:58 PM

By David Alliot

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A bipartisan inquiry has revealed a growing number of online companies targeting consumers with advertising based on information they gathered — without consumers’ knowledge or consent.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee requested information from more than 30 Internet companies on how they target consumers, reports The Washington Post. The committee was chaired by, John Dingell, D-Mich.

One company, advertising giant Google, said that while preferences were targeted and advertising developed around those preferences, the company did not employ more invasive techniques such as “deep-packet inspection,” which collects data from multiple sources.

Microsoft and Yahoo! have admitted to behavioral targeting as well, according to the Post. Moreover, as these giants have acquired other companies, their data collection has sizably increased.

The stakes are high — companies pay big for ads that target specific tastes due to such ads’ high response rates. And while privacy advocates are up in arms over the data collection, saying an online privacy “Bill of Rights” is needed — and fast — consumers are not lodging complaints, according to the The New York Times.

That could be only because they are unaware of what, and how much, is being collected, the Times reports.

A Bill of Rights may look good on its face, but it could hurt small companies by thwarting their efforts to target consumers. And that, in a lagging economy, won’t bode well for the privacy camps. Company representative are quick to point out, however, that policies are in place to protect personal information from advertisers, though consumer preferences are fair game, the Post reports.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., suggested transparent self-regulation as a middle ground, so that companies are better able to compete.

Still, without some set of guidelines, companies have shown just how far they are willing to go. Last year, Facebook’s “Beacon” program collected member data and made purchase information available to online friends, the Times reports.

Committee member Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, agreed that legislation was necessary, stating in the the Post article: “A broad approach to protecting people’s online privacy seems . . . inevitable.”

Perhaps if consumers were aware that the potential for misuse of their personal information was a possibility, they’d sit up and take notice.

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