It's Not Big Brother, But Internet Privacy Concerns Heighten

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - It's not Big Brother, according to two think tank officials, but the sale or transfer of Internet consumer information databases has raised the concerns of privacy advocates, lawmakers, and regulating agencies.

Earlier this month, Federal Trade Commission agents requested that Congress allow them the authority to impose strict curtailments on Internet companies seeking personal information from users.

"Companies say self-regulation will work, but it's becoming clear that companies on the Net are not protecting the privacy of consumers," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said during a recent Senate panel hearing.

One privacy violation that can occur on the Internet is when companies place cookies - or identifying number texts - on computer users who visit their sites. Cookies allow the corporations to recognize repeat visitors and thus tailor the site to the individual.

Some cookies, however, like the ones formerly utilized by the company DoubleClick, perform surveillance by tracking Internet users to each site they enter and reporting on such information as shopping preferences. These profiles can then be sold or transferred to other Internet companies, unbeknownst to consumers.

DoubleClick is now facing the threat of legal action for its "clandestine" and "covert" tactics, a letter from the Michigan's Attorney General's office said. However, such Internet profiling practices are reportedly difficult to detect and therefore possibly widespread.

"We had two hearings on Internet privacy and on profiling," said Rob Taylor, counsel for the Senate subcommittee on consumer affairs. "Most of the companies who operate on a collect data basis also operate on a buy basis."

Still, at least one think tank official knowledgeable of Internet concerns said the sharing of such data would only benefit consumers.

Solveig Singleton, the director of information studies at Cato Institute, said the larger the shared database pool, the less money individual corporations would have to spend on advertising because the efforts would be targeted toward an audience already proven receptive to such products being offered.

Singleton did not consider privacy issues to be a valid concern.

Ayn Rand Institute President and Executive Director Yaron Brook did.

"I'm not concerned with Big Brother accumulating all the information on me and coming out and getting me," Brook said, "but I am concerned with these companies sticking by their privacy policies. I think if they say (on their site) they have a privacy policy, they should stick to it ... and if they say that in their statement, there must be some way of making them."