- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Talk of restricting advertisers from tracking consumers’ online habits should be expanded beyond traditional computers to include newer devices capable of accessing the Internet if regulators want regulations to remain relevant in coming years, online privacy experts say.

“Our devices are becoming more connected,” said Ashkan Soltani, a researcher and consultant on privacy, security and behavioral economics. “So they’re going to have the same privacy concerns as do our computers.”

Mr. Soltani was part of a panel on “Enabling Online Privacy” that spoke to lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Congress is considering legislation for a “Do Not Track” Internet policy that has been compared to the “Do Not Call” list for phones.

Technology giants, such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc., are building Internet TVs that allow users to browse the Web while viewing programs. Automakers also are equipping vehicles with Internet access. And, of course, smartphones can browse the Web.

In all of these areas, the potential exists to track consumers habits, Mr. Soltani said.

The Federal Trade Commission, which discussed a “Do Not Track” policy in its December 2010 report, would be interested in expanding regulations to include browser devices, such as computers and smartphones, said panel member Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC’s division of privacy and identity protection. This would cover consumers who download smartphone apps, which can currently track their location, as well as those who shop online.

All other devices, such as TVs and cars, should give consumers a choice about whether they want to be tracked, she said, but not necessarily included in the “Do Not Track” policy.

“The bottom line is there should be a choice,” Miss Mithal said.

Online advertisers go to great lengths to track viewers’ habits and interests, experts say, which isn’t all bad. Most viewers appreciate when the website they are browsing “personalizes” their experience with tracking mechanisms. This happens at Amazon.com. When a viewer makes a purchase, the website records it, and next time they show up, it suggests a similar product. This also happens at ESPN.com, when sports fans tailor the website to their favorite teams.

“If you’re on ESPN and you see an ad for a baseball game, that should be expected,” Mr. Soltani said.

While consumers plan to be tracked by the websites they visit, he said the controversy arises when third-party or “invisible” advertisers that are hidden on the site gather information about unsuspecting viewers.

Erich Andersen, vice president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft and another panel member, agreed, saying that consumers are “generally happy” about personalization features on websites. But if “I’m moving from site to site and keep seeing the same Viagra ad,” that’s a problem.

Regulators must be careful to combat the intrusive ads, while not interfering with the legitimate tracking services that have led to a booming online advertising industry, experts say.

“We have to be very careful about not killing the goose that’s laying golden eggs,” Mr. Andersen said. “Advertising is very important in the digital economy.”

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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