Online data collection offers consumers a mixture of good and bad. For many shoppers, a merchant's ability to target them with emails and other online ads that are directly tied to their personal preferences is a boon. You may have an interest in a particular genre of literature or a particular type of clothing, and a service that has collected data from your online viewing habits can provide you with sales and other offers about which you otherwise would not be aware.
But gathering this information requires companies to reach into your computer and track you in ways about which you certainly are unaware. That raises all sorts of questions about how such data may be used, or abused, if placed in the wrong hands.
Given this mixture, the Federal Trade Commission's 57-page final report on privacy and data collection, released Monday, is about as good as anyone should expect out of Washington. Online marketing is a growing part of the economy, one that allows advertisers to place their products in front of people who are most likely to buy them. The federal government has to tread lightly when it comes to severely limiting private business, which is why even President Obama has been careful not to advocate heavy restrictions. In any event, the FTC has no power to impose such restrictions. Only Congress could do that, and it is incapable of doing much of anything these days.
The report calls on Internet companies to voluntarily create a "do not track" system that presumably would allow people to click on a web browser button that would turn off a company's ability to track them. The FTC has little power to threaten the industry with anything if it doesn't comply, but there is evidence private web companies already are working to provide such a system. Indeed, it is in their best interest to do so. Periodic stories in the media about surreptitious data-gathering are not good for online shopping.
For many people, clicking such a button would not be in their best interests. However, we agree the most alarming part of online tracking is its secretive nature. Consumers should not have to surrender control of personal data without their knowledge as the price for the convenience of visiting web sites. They should be made aware of what information is being gathered, and for what purpose, and they should be given a chance to opt out.
Still, we doubt many consumers would be too upset to know a marketer is hard at work finding them the types of products they have an interest in buying. There is nothing inherently offensive about tracking consumer habits and preferences.
As with any other sort of data involving the public, however, transparency and choice are essential. Given the lack of will in Congress to impose this, the public should insist that online advertisers and marketers provide safeguards voluntarily.
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