Congress Readies an “Opt-In” Privacy Bill, and the Web Industry Cringes

Published on June 23, 2009
by Peter Kafka

privacyHere comes the battle the online ad business has been dreading: Congress is drawing up a bill that would require users to sign up to let advertisers track their online behavior–and, if you believe online publishers, more or less destroy the online ad business.

Simulmedia founder and CEO Dave Morgan told an industry conference today that Rep. Rick Boucher, the Virginia Democrat who has become the loudest voice in Congress in the advertising/privacy fight, is prepping a bill that will force publishers to let Web surfers “opt in” before they’re served with any third-party tracking cookies.

Not a huge surprise: Boucher laid out the case for the bill last week at a Congressional hearing. It’s unclear just exactly what that would mean for the business: Could Google (GOOG) not send cookies out if you, say, played a YouTube video embedded on a third-party site (like the one the White House runs)?

But right now the details of the proposed bill don’t matter: The industry has already started arguing against it via promotions that explain just how valuable Web advertising is to the country (and by extension, the targeting/tracking that cookies enable it). From MediaFlect’s Dorian Benkoil:

“Congress’ position is that consumers are not appropriately aware of what is being done on their machines, and the use of cookies delivered by a third party is something consumers have not been appropriately informed of,” said Morgan, who oversees privacy initiatives for the Internet Advertising Bureau [and who] was in Washington last week talking to FTC officials and congressional staff, he said. “Congress’ default position is that that will require an opt-in,” to serve a third-party cookie.

That’s a perfectly sensible position from a consumer’s perspective: Why should advertisers and their proxies track what you’re doing on the Web without your consent? But from the advertising/publisher perspective, an opt-in plan means a plan no one will ever agree to, which means no more cookies/tracking, period, which means Web advertising becomes as imprecise and clumsy as good-old TV and print ads.

Which is why the Web guys prefer a bill that allows surfers to opt out–or preferably, no bill at all.

I still like my Solomon-like solution, which I’ve thrown out before: Let consumers opt in, but give them a reward for doing so.

It doesn’t have to be much–consumers say they care about privacy, but in reality, they’re very happy to trade personal info for trinkets and geegaws. Maybe you get “privacy points” every time you visit a site for the first time and sign away your right to complain about tracking. And if you earn enough you get a bag of Cheetos, etc. Sure we can work something out.

[Image credit: rpongsaj]

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