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Are people being hurt when their browsing habits and personal details are collected by online advertising groups?

April 1, 2011

Privacy rights organizations say yes, that people’s sensitive information shouldn’t be left in the hands of businesses that benefit from buying and selling it. Online advertising and financial services groups, however, argue that tracking is essential for delivering more relevant advertising, and of course it’s the uptake of this advertising that keeps the lights on at many a Web site.

Those opinions come from the 442 comments received by the FTC after it released, in December 2010, its proposal for a privacy framework for public feedback. In the framework, the FTC proposes regulating companies that handle or collect people’s personal information, and providing options such as Do Not Track for consumers to opt out of online tracking.

As that proposal suggests, the currently unregulated, free-market approach to selling people’s personal information is drawing intense scrutiny. That’s due in no small part to The Wall Street Journal’s July 2010 What They Know investigative reporting, which detailed the array of cookies and surveillance technologies being used to monitor the who, what, and where of Web site visits. The latest technology can even function in real time, correlating email addresses, movie preferences, income, medical conditions, and more, while resisting attempts to be deactivated.

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