Putting the Customer First on
Striking a balance in a world where advertisers don’t
always respect everyone’s online privacy.
Much like advertising via fax, phone and mail is regulated by do-not-contact lists and other rules, the Internet has become the newest consumer privacy hotspot.
Watchdog and consumer groups speak up on the issue
regularly, stating that as the Internet has grown, so too
have the number of chances to defraud consumers and
violate their privacy online.
Now the government is stepping in. To come to
the aid of frustrated consumers who don’t want their
Internet activities tracked by “cookies,” and those
that have been victimized by online identify theft, the
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department
of Commerce have proposed several new consumer
privacy rules. In December, the FTC proposed an increase in the protection of consumers’ commercial data
in a way that doesn’t hamper innovation and evolving
In other words, the government wants to use regulation to walk the tightrope between preserving consumer trust while also supporting the $10 billion in global
transactions that take place online every year (and the
jobs and economic growth associated with the sector).
Its recommendations include the adoption of a “privacy
by design” approach that would find companies building privacy protections into their everyday business
practices, including reasonable security for consumer
data, limited collection and retention of such data and
reasonable procedures to promote data accuracy.
Part of the government’s plan includes a Do-Not-
Track mechanism for online advertising. A persistent
setting (similar to a cookie) that is placed on consum-
ers’ Web browsers, the
mechanism would let buyers
choose whether to allow the
collection of data regarding
their online searching and
browsing activities, or not.
There’s no question
that consumers need better
online protections, mainly
because so many of them
don’t realize how vulnerable
they — and their private information — are online.
A recent survey from Anonymizer Inc., a provider of
online anonymity solutions, found that 75 percent of
people thought a firewall offered them enough protection to safeguard their identities online. Another 62
percent believed antivirus software was enough protection against malware.
The report also found that:
❯ When they’re online, consumers are most concerned about identity theft ( 45 percent), privacy
( 41 percent) and computer viruses ( 45 percent).
❯ Consumers are increasingly aware that their mobile devices are also vulnerable to malicious cy-beractivity — only 28 percent thought that their
identities were secure on a mobile device.
❯ Eighty-five percent of respondents were aware
that they were being profiled by advertisers as
they surfed the Internet.
❯ Eighty-five percent said they were aware that
they were being stalked by cybercriminals.
While consumers know that danger is lurking online, very few of them make the effort to avoid it. The
government’s stance on this issue is a double-edged
sword for marketers. On one hand, the tracking mechanism would allow companies to deliver more relevant,
pertinent ads to a smaller group of interested buyers
— instead of distributing them to the masses. Search
results would be more useful for cybersurfers, who up
until now have been fielding random ads that aren’t
always on target.
On the negative side, a clampdown on a medium
that’s been largely “open” since going commercial in
the 1990s could hamper business, and take away luxuries like password and account information retention
(so that consumers don’t have to retype their information every time they log in, or place an order).
Whether Washington’s “Do-Not-Track” rule for the
Internet passes muster or not, there is clearly a need for
better consumer protection online. By taking proactive measures to respect everyone’s privacy when doing
business online, advertisers can get ahead of the game
and position themselves as responsible companies that
put their customers’ needs first. ■