Earlier this month the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a landmark report proposing new guidelines for guarding online privacy. Among a wide range of suggested options the most concrete and far reaching is a recommendation to develop and mandate a “do not track” system. This system would allow users to prevent websites from collecting any information about their identity or their online behavior without first getting consent.
This is great news for advocates of online privacy and a blunt wake-up call to marketing and PR professionals.
Increasingly we all live online lives – we shop, socialize, entertain ourselves and conduct our business via the Web. And increasingly, our every move online is being tracked and recorded, building up a rich composite picture of who we are, what we do, and how we act. At worst, this results in gross invasions of privacy or the loss of personal information; at best, it allows website owners to customize experiences to our liking and even anticipate and predict what we're searching for or what might interest us.
For marketing pros, the news is mixed. We've all become accustomed to being able to gather – usually anonymously, usually without consent – a lot of information about how customers and prospects act online. This helps tell us which campaigns and offers work, how people navigate around our site, and even when someone returns to us and starts to show behaviors that would indicate they're moving down a sales process. These data make it possible for marketing to create an almost closed-loop measurement of a prospect lifecycle, and have created a whole new industry for tools that help aggregate and process this data.
If the FTC has its way, much of this could go away.
This is not a new problem. Back in the day, when direct mail was the cutting edge of response marketing, the Direct Marketing Association waged a bitter fight to ensure any “prior consent” legislation never made it through the US Congress. Similar fights have waged around “do not call” lists and telemarketing.
But with the Internet, the stakes are higher. There are too many unresolved security issues and too much latitude in what information is being taken from us. The FTC proposal is the right idea and should be supported.