Privacy vs. Commerce: Lawmakers Debate Wisdom of 'Do Not Track' Laws

Do you want companies watching where you go online?

ByABC News
December 2, 2010, 2:00 PM

Dec. 2, 2010— -- Lawmakers on Capitol Hill pondered 'Do Not Track' legislation that would allow consumers to choose whether they want their Internet browsing monitored by online businesses and advertisers. The congressional hearing came on the heels of the Federal Trade Commission's proposal on Wednesday to let people decide whether they want their online visits to be private.

Tracking online activity is mostly invisible, leaving many people unaware that companies monitor their Web browsing in order to show them targeted ads. 'Do Not Track' tools would give consumers some control over marketers – similar to the 'Do Not Call' registry that allowed consumers to opt out of calls from telemarketers.

At today's hearing there were mixed responses, from both lawmakers and witnesses, on the wisdom of federally regulating online tracking. David Vladeck of the Federal Trade Commission testified that the current opt-out choices offered by the private sector are confusing; consumers think they are opting out of third-party tracking, for example, when they are in fact just opting out of receiving targeted ads.

"A robust 'Do Not Track' mechanism must be clear, easy to locate and use, and effectively implement the user's choice to opt out of third-party tracking," said Vladeck.

Beyond the issue of government intervention were the questions of online privacy and commerce, and whether one supersedes the other in importance and value. Susan Grant , director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said companies already track consumers' every online move, often without their consent.

"If someone were following you around… tailing you and making note of everywhere you go, what you read, who you talk to, what you eat, the music that you listen to, what you buy, what you watch," Grant said, "you might find this disturbing."