Why we don’t need the government to protect us from online tracking

Do not track

The Do Not Track legislation introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has picked up considerable steam since its debut in Congress last February and has inspired a furor of similar bills ready to clog (or already clogging) Congress. Speier and privacy groups supporting the bill say that tracking consumers’ online behavior is an invasion of privacy. Speier’s proposal would give the FTC power to create a Do Not Track database so consumers could opt out of online tracking.

On the other side of the debate are the behavioral advertising firms and publishers who say that, while protecting consumer privacy is of utmost importance, tracking helps serve targeted ads to consumers who might be interested, and regulating such tracking could suppress innovation and perhaps even kill online advertising.

So, Congress, before considering Speier’s bill and diving headfirst into government regulation, let’s take a look at some other options that will achieve the same consumer privacy results without strangling online advertising. Specifically, these options include transparency from advertisers, proper technology tools, and consumer participation in managing relationships with the businesses they frequent.

Transparency, Data Hygiene, and Technology
“Business transparency” is a buzzword that transcends industries — and for good reason: It’s a key component in developing trust. In digital marketing, adopting transparent business practices is the best way for companies to protect their brand and their business, while also ensuring consumer privacy is maintained. It is also in the best interest of advertisers and data brokers to be transparent about how they collect consumer data and what they intend to do with it. Take a look at recent TRUSTe’s Privacy Index findings, which serve as a warning to digital marketers and advertisers: Eighty-eight percent of U.S. adults say they avoid doing business with companies that do not protect their privacy.

Of course, marketers and advertisers will only want to be transparent if their data (consumer information) is “clean;” that is, permission-based and accurate. They can start by outsourcing to only trustworthy list-rental vendors that offer permission-based lists, so recipients will be those who have “opted in” to receive advertisements and offers.

Technology, too, can play a crucial role here. Savvy digital marketers use technology that helps target specific demographics, while also ensuring opt-out preferences are heeded. Tools from other companies that remove bad or invalid e-mail addresses or non-permissioned addresses and spam traps can augment that technology. (And advertisers using this technology get the added bonus of more targeted results.) Aside from sidestepping privacy issues, making sure records are clean before you execute a campaign means a higher level of in-box delivery and increased open-and-click rates.

The Consumer’s Role
An individual’s responsibility to manage his or her own personal information online is just as important as the role companies play in protecting consumer privacy. It starts with paying close attention to the fine print. Every company a customer has an online relationship with has a privacy policy in place, which details how they plan to share the consumer’s information. If consumers overlook this fine print and fail to opt out, the floodgates are cast open, and those consumers will not only receive unsolicited email, but also open themselves up to publicized personal information.

Many supporting Speier’s bill fail to recognize how easy it is for consumers to opt out of receiving unsolicited email. It’s simply a one-click process and requires nothing more than an email address to complete. Furthermore, it’s regulated: Under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, consumer opt-out requests must be honored within 10 days or the offending company could face criminal and/or civil charges.

With this consumer buy-in to take responsibility for opting out, as well as proper technology tools and transparency among advertisers and data brokers, we can effectively self-regulate and continue to reap the rewards online advertising affords all parties.

David Fowler is chief privacy officer of lead-generation platform maker Marketfish

[Top image credit: Luis Louro/Shutterstock]


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