Online Profiling Project Comment, P994809 / Docket No. 990811219-9219-01
Secretary, Federal Trade
Following the Request for Public Comments for the Public Workshop on Online Profiling scheduled for November 8, 1999, this letter provides written comments as follows:
The mere existence of the Workshop on Online Profiling indicates how low the level of consumer privacy has become online, how inadequate previous government and industry actions to protect privacy have been so far, and how terrifying the future of privacy can be if a resolute action is not taken.
We are moving towards a surveillance society, where citizens can expect that whenever they sit in front of a computer screen, all their online actions will be compiled. Conceptually, these actions follow the surveillance by telescreens, as described by George Orwell in his book 1984.
As consumer privacy declines, companies are misled to believe that profits from their side business of selling visitor and customer information can replace direct revenues from their main products. This shift redefines the role of such companies from service/product providers to surveillance agencies.
Since there is only limited value in advertising (even AOL gets only $5/month/user according to the 10/14/99 New York Times), companies whose revenue stream rely on advertising will be forced to go out of business or sell their profiles to other buyers. The highest value will be provided by those we want, legitimately, to hide our private lives from - employers, insurance and credit companies, private investigators, opposing legal parties, pesky neighbors, nosy relatives or curious work colleagues.
With online profiling, personal information goes through the following phases:
Fair use of personal data is either:
The following issues substantially undermine the reason for online profiling for advertising purposes, and should be discussed and considered in the workshop:
I have elaborated on points A,B,D and F in a document called "The Market in Personal Information - Analysis, Concerns and Proposed Solution", submitted to the FTC on September on 1996. In that unacted-upon document I concluded with the following paragraph:
"There is a vicious cycle of information onslaught. The more offers consumers get, the less interested they will be in each. This will require companies to 'shout' even louder, and ever more consumers will cover their ears. This process becomes much more dangerous when consumer privacy is chipped out and sold with each escalation in penetration attempts. The financial incentives today reward companies for invading the privacy of people. The only way to prevent it is to eliminate this financial incentive and encourage companies and consumers to listen to each other, not shout at each other. The best way for such two-way communication is an opt-in system."
Unfortunately, the FTC and the NTIA have not heeded to this advice and have not required an opt-in system. With the upcoming workshop, we face the same questions but with more private information on the agenda as another layer of our privacy has been chipped away.
With these comments, I hope to help citizens, industry, media and government officials focus on the issues that need to be discussed in the workshop. It is my belief that excessive information detracts from clear understanding of the critical issues. Therefore, I keep my comments brief. I would be happy to provide more information upon request or attend session II of the workshop to expand on the above.