Each Sunday night, an average audience of 100 million people tune in to NBC to watch Sunday Night Football, allowing the network to charge over $500,000 for a 30 second commercial slot during that time (Ludwig, 2012). Now, imagine the amount of advertising revenue that social media giant Facebook commands during that same evening with over one billion active users. Websites such as Facebook, that glean enormous profits from their massive audiences, have another distinct advantage over television networks: their ability to track and target their audiences like hunted prey.
In recent years, websites have begun closely tracking their users’ searching, browsing, clicking and liking habits, using the data to build detailed, online advertising profiles of users. These “advertising clones” can then be sold to advertising agencies with no legal drawbacks. The ensuing gathering of information has turned the average online user into a target of online advertising and, as a result, made them increasingly vulnerable to identity theft. In response to increasingly vocal, and valid, concerns over the mounting volume of user data currently being collected, it is time for the government to step in and create policies that will allow average users to easily see how they are being tracked and targeted, and how to avoid it if they so choose.
So far, government regulations have been virtually nonexistent in addressing online privacy concerns. Historically, legislation has lagged far behind the rapid rate of online growth in the e-commerce sector. The Federal Trade Commission implemented the most recent legislation concerning such matters nearly a generation ago, in 1998, stating that “legislation to address online privacy [was] not appropriate at [that] time” (Steinberg, 2011). This left the burden of privacy protection largely up to the individual users. It is clear that now, fourteen years later, that it is far past time to implement such online privacy legislation, with Internet advertising revenue ballooning from a mere 600 million in 1996 to an expected 963 billion in 2013 (Steinberg, 2011).
Yet federal officials remain extremely resistant to stepping in to curtail the extensive, and highly secretive, data mining taking place. For them, the Internet offers a gold mine of data – much as it does to advertisers – where criminal records can be compiled, and the tracking of suspects is as simple as performing a Google search. Hindering such a resource to provide better privacy to its people is simply not worthwhile in the eyes of most policy makers. Additionally, the fact that people contribute their online information willingly in most cases makes it hard for lawmakers to regulate the collection of such information by outside parties.
Fortunately, the average user is not left completely unprotected from online tracking and data collection. Facebook and Google have implemented privacy settings that can be adjusted by the user. Many browsers have also implemented anti-tracking features that can be set to decrease the amount of data collected as users browse the Internet (Steinberg, 2011). Unfortunately, such features remain complicated and relatively unknown to the vast majority of online users.
This is where online websites and advertisers, federal regulatory agencies and the individual users can begin working to find middle ground in providing some level of online privacy.
New policies should ensure that users know the risks inherent with submitting crucial information online and how to avoid such dangers. A good start would be to require Web companies to place prominently, and in the foreground, warnings about the dangers of online information gathering that are currently buried in most websites’ online policies. In addition, policy would need to go one step further to ensure that users can easily choose to implement standardized anti-tracking software.
Finally, new policies would have to require the simplification of online privacy policies and settings in a way that the average user can understand.
Implementation of policies such as these would not be completely unrealistic because they would benefit the online user in a way that would not entirely degrade the e-commerce’s use of data collection and user tracking. The user would benefit through their empowerment while the policy would in no way put an end to the revenues generated through online advertising.
By finding middle ground, policies such as these would ultimately be the most feasible way to curb the rate of data-collecting and user tracking while bringing real privacy-control into the hands of the online user.
Ludwig, S. (2012, February 6). Wrestling Online Privacy [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://venturebeat.com/2012/02/06/google-facebook-online-privacy-infographic/
Steinberg, B. (2011, October 24). ‘American Idol,’ NFL Duke it out for Priciest TV Spot. Retrieved November 5, 2012, from Ad Age website: http://adage.com/article/media/chart-american-idol-nfl-duke-priciest-tv-spot/230547/
About the Author: Taylor Graham is currently attending Ithaca College in New York where he is an Emerging Media Major and Park Scholar. Growing up in the mountains of Southwestern Colorado, Taylor began dabbling in media production as a kid, filming short ski videos with friends. His passion for media has since expanded to social media and web development, although he still films and writes as much as possible.