Rep. Jackie Speier is a Democrat from California.
Right now, if you are online, you are probably being watched by dozens, if not hundreds, of online trackers. It's almost impossible to tell how many. About the only way to avoid being tracked online is to never go on the Internet. Information about user behavior, online browsing habits, and other online and even offline activity is collected, analyzed, bundled, used, shared, bought, and sold, often instantaneously and invisibly.
What do trackers want to know about you? Only they know because they don't have to tell you. After they follow you around for a while, what will they do with all the information they gather about you? They don't have to tell you that either. They might not even know themselves—yet. But have no doubt: Your data are valuable, otherwise they wouldn't be trying so hard to prevent access to it.
Despite claims that the information gathered is not personally identifiable, experts say now that so much information is gathered that all it takes is a few keystrokes to figure out the rest, including your name. Most people would be shocked at how much data are gathered on seemingly benign websites like Dictionary.com, and how persistently and easily their activities, including conversations in chat rooms, are tracked and profiled. It is likely they can determine your age, gender, religion, financial status, health concerns, address, and the ages of your children.
Groups like the Digital Advertising Alliance have focused attention on the use of tracking data to personalize online marketing ads and have started to provide consumers with some ability to opt out. But that is only a small part of the story. What they don't want to do is stop collecting your information.
And that personal information can be stored indefinitely. It can be combined into dossiers by data brokers with material from other sources, which could eventually be used for many purposes. We now know that data collection practices have become a business, driven by profits at consumer expense, instead of for their benefit. Life insurance companies have started using online shopping and other data in their longevity analyses. It is not farfetched to think that health insurance companies, auto insurers, employers, and numerous others will also find these data troves irresistible. And all this information is digital, so it never goes away.
People who work in the online tracking and advertising industries counter that they don't threaten privacy at all, and that "Do Not Track" measures could limit free content on the web without securing any additional privacy for consumers. The Federal Trade Commission disagrees and has called for a universal Do Not Track mechanism for consumers that is easy to find, easy to use, and easy to understand. Polls have consistently shown that more than 90 percent of consumers want their privacy choices respected.
I believe that privacy isn't negotiable. That is why last year I introduced the Do Not Track Me Online Act—to give consumers the ability to prevent the collection and use of data on their online activities. The act would ensure that your privacy is protected and allow you to know who is watching you, what they are doing with your data, and provide the ability to opt out of tracking.
In its early stages, the acquisition, exchange, and use of online consumer data helped fund a variety of personalized content and services on the Internet and allowed businesses to innovate and develop new products and programs that offered convenience and cost savings. But the Internet marketplace has matured, and it is time for consumer protections to keep pace.