Privacy perils of Web surfing

Consumer data: Regulation needed to protect rights of Internet users.

February 21, 2000

COOKIES is the innocent term for those electronic files that a Web page secretly deposits in an Internet user's computer, a marker to identify the user the next time that computer connects to the Web site.

The traditional assumption is that such information is anonymous, only used to speed the repeat Internet site connection and not to collect personal data from the user.

But DoubleClick Inc., the largest Internet advertising firm, is directly challenging that basic assumption of Internet privacy. Last fall it began compiling on-line personal profiles with information from the 12,000 Web sites for which it supplies advertising. The firm is combining this Internet information with that of a gigantic off-line retail customer database it recently acquired.

The result: a dossier for marketers on more than 90 percent of American households that holds detailed information, including financial, health and family mattersmost people don't want to share.

DoubleClick promised for years that its on-line consumer profiles were compiled anonymously. Now it has shamefully reversed its policy with the lame excuse that, "We're doing nothing wrong."

Consumers can opt out, prohibiting the sharing of their computer habits, by clicking a couple of buttons, the New York company says. But it actually takes a lot of wading through pages of tiny type before you can accomplish that goal; sometimes the cookies keep coming. And most Internet surfers aren't even aware of DoubleClick's data collection activities.

This is an issue that requires regulation. There is no comprehensive federal Internet privacy law.

Citizen privacy groups are asking the Federal Trade Commission to intervene. Lawsuits have been filed to stop the practice.

DoubleClick and other companies argue that the secret user ID helps marketers to target advertising more efficiently, something that consumers also appreciate.

Government regulation should require, at minimum, that consumers have the choice to opt out of the Web site data base. The basic assumption should be that the Internet user does not want this personal information collected, unless clearly signifying otherwise.

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