FPF Response to New York Times Editorial on Privacy Legislation

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Letter to the Editor
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
We agree with your editorial “A New Internet Privacy Law?” (3/19/11) that minimum standards of privacy are needed. But your reflexive call for a “Do Not Track” provision in whatever law emerges ignores important facts.  A technology solution already has emerged with web browsers that allow consumers to send a “Do Not Track” signal to ad networks, indicating that they don’t want to be targeted with ads based on their web browsing.  It hard to imagine an equally effective legal prescription.  “Do Not Track” sounds deceptively similar to “Do Not Call,” the very effective law where registering phone numbers stops commercial solicitations by phone.

The similarity ends with the nomenclature. It is not easy, and may be impossible, to craft a law that encompasses the many ways in which online activities can be tracked. There is no potential for a government registry of online opt-outs for industry to consult as is there is for phone numbers. Moreover, a one-size fits all Do Not Track law may lead to clever work-arounds by determined online trackers and unintended consequences for the Internet.  There is a role for law to protect online privacy, to be sure, but it is not through Congressional mandates for specific technological fixes.

Christopher Wolf and Jules Polonetsky
Washington, D.C.
The authors are co-chairs of the Future of Privacy Forum think tank.