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If you knew that everything that you did online was being watched, would you change your Internet browsing patterns? If you said yes, you’re clearly among the many people who do not realize that data about our Internet habits are constantly being recorded.

This situation has prompted the FTC to take steps, not only to educate consumers about the constant tracking being done but also to get companies to disclose what they are tracking and what they are doing with the information. For example, one company sells a service to parents that allow them to see what their children are doing online, but then that company turns around and sells the same information to marketers! Marketers can use the information to target consumers according to their searching and buying habits online. The companies that collect the best information about consumers’ browsing patterns and preferences earn higher fees from advertisers desperate to gain accurate information.

The protections for consumers online are not quite clear yet. The FTC wants to add a “do not track” button on browsers, which would allow consumers to opt in or out of such tracking. It argues that consumers have a basic right to not be “stalked,” whether by phone or via the Internet. Yet critics contend that untargeted advertising online makes little sense, and many websites rely completely on their advertising, so preventing such tracking would be detrimental to business. Advertising as a whole has decreased by 0.4 percent of GDP in the past two decades. Perhaps it will not be affected all that much.

Before a “Do not track” button can be made available on browsers, a lot of legislation will need to be passed. Such laws might make the Internet a safer place, by forcing data collectors to disclose what they are going to do with all that information.

Discussion Question: Do you think full disclosure on tracking consumers’ browsing habits is necessary?

Editorial, “Protecting Online Privacy,” The New York Times, December 4, 2010.