If you’re like most Web users, you probably don’t realize how intensively your visits to many of the most popular pages on the Internet are scrutinized.
In fact, the art of anonymous, Internetwide monitoring of who visits what webpage has been advancing dramatically, driven by advertisers’ desire to tailor their messages to specific groups of customers.
This month, however, the Federal Trade Commission — responding to complaints that “tracking” software can violate the privacy of those using the Web — moved to put the brakes on such monitoring. The FTC called for a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would enable consumers to opt out of being tailed around the Web.
Privacy advocates praised the move, saying that tracking has gotten out of hand.
“Consumers have a right to know what information is gathered about them, how it is used and whether it is gathered at all,” says John M. Simpson, spokesman for the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
Opponents counter that the Do Not Track plan would disrupt the burgeoning online advertising industry, putting at risk the estimated $300 billion of U.S. economic activity it helps to foster, as calculated by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).
Display ads, video ads and animation ads that rely heavily on Internet tracking could be thrown out of whack in unpredictable ways, critics of the FTC plan say. And that could negatively affect a $25.8 billion-a-year advertising and marketing industry that’s expected to swell to $40.5 billion by 2014, according to research firm eMarketer.
The debate over the FTC’s plan reflects long-simmering tensions over how privacy and commerce intersect on the Internet. And it’s raising questions about the necessity for a federal law that would require ad networks to heed consumers’ Do Not Track requests.
The technology that would enable people to opt out of being spied on while surfing the Internet is…