Imagine this. You are at the kitchen table playing Scrabble with your family. Your whiz kid daughter takes all seven of her tiles and spells “casuist.” The other players are skeptical. They want an official review.
You go to look it up at Dictionary.com. This is what you learn: “casuist” is a noun meaning someone who uses clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions—and your daughter is really smart.
Here is what you probably don’t know. By visiting Dictionary.com, you’ve exposed yourself to the single greatest tracker of online activity on the Internet.
There is no longer any anonymity on the Web — unless we mandate it. The most personal information about your online habits is collected, bought and sold, often instantaneously and invisibly. Data collection is a business driven by profits at consumers’ expense. The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted these practices —which include targeting children —in its groundbreaking series, “What They Know.” The Journal also outed Dictionary.com as the top venue for tracking technology.
Online trackers claim the information they collect is anonymous and helps enhance the user’s experience. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is it only takes 33 "bits" of information to uniquely indentify someone. In addition, the data collected is being used to make assumptions about you that can affect everything from your insurance premiums to your next job interview.
Just imagine this. You are the social director at your local church. You are in charge of buying refreshments for an upcoming bazaar. You go online and buy 15 cases of wine. This information is collected and then sold to a life or health insurance company that determines you are an alcoholic and should be charged more or denied coverage altogether.
How will a prospective employer interpret this information when it purchases it from an online tracking company?
Privacy isn’t negotiable. It’s the right of every American. That’s why I introduced the Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011. This legislation would give consumers the ability to prevent the collection and use of data on their online activities. The message is simple: where you go and what you do on the Internet is your business.
Specifically, the bill would direct the Federal Trade Commission to develop standards for a “Do Not Track” mechanism, which would allow individuals upfront to opt out of the collection, use or sale of their online activities — and require companies to respect the consumer’s choice. Failure to do so would be considered an unfair or deceptive act, punishable by law.
The tool would be simple and universal. No matter what browser you use or what websites you visit, opting out of tracking would apply across the board and wouldn’t need to be repeated every time you log on. The retailer Staples has its easy button. This would be a “stop watching me” button. It would tell online tracking companies the only cookies you want have chocolate chips.
The do not track concept is supported across all demographic lines — including political persuasions. According to Consumer Watchdog, 86 percent of Americans want a “Do Not Track” button created. In addition, 70 percent of Facebook members and 52 percent of Google users say they are either "somewhat" or "very concerned about their privacy, according to a recent a recent USA Today poll.
People have a right to surf the Web without Big Brother watching their every move and announcing it to the world. The Internet marketplace has matured — and it’s time for consumers’ protections to keep pace.
In addition to overwhelming public support, this legislation has been endorsed by Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Action, U.S. PIRG, Consumer Watchdog, World Privacy Forum, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Amercian Civil Liberties Union. The only opposition seems to be from companies that now profit off of your inability to stop online tracking.
But, as any good Scrabble player knows, they are being casuists. In the interest of privacy and consumer advocacy, we must move forward and make “Do Not Track” the law of the land.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, where she is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management. She also serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.