Everything old is new again — at least when it comes to bad ideas for Internet regulation.
This week, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill that would require all websites to adhere to a “do not track” web standard, so that internet users could download an app or change a setting in their web browser and opt out of all data collection from online services unless the data is strictly necessary for a service to function. While proponents of this idea describe it as the online equivalent of the national Do Not Call Registry, the proposal shares little in common with that measure and would leave consumers worse off.
This bill is an attempt to resurrect a failed idea. More than a decade ago, various groups proposed creating a “do not track” option for internet users. Consumer groups, advertisers, tech companies and regulators tried to develop a standard but abandoned the idea in 2013 when there appeared to be little demand for it. This new bill would force companies to comply with this defunct standard and penalize any sites that disregard such requests.
Despite “do not track” and “do not call” sharing a similar name, there is little in common between the two. There are two major differences: The first is that people pay directly for phone service, whereas advertising covers the cost of most of the free content and services people use on the internet. The telephone system that consumers use today would continue to work just fine without telemarketing; but the internet services that most consumers use today would not work without advertising and would work much less effectively without targeted ads. The second is that telemarketing calls are an annoying interruption for most people, while targeted internet ads are mostly innocuous, and are more relevant than random, non-targeted ads.
When consumers choose to opt out of unsolicited telemarketing calls, they are not at the same time receiving some free service that is linked to the telephone call. It would be one thing if, for example, marketers could call your phone multiple times every evening at dinner time in exchange for free telephone service. But that is not the deal. There is no quid pro quo. These unsolicited calls are simply a cost to the economy and an annoyance to consumers. Therefore, there is a legitimate reason to have an opt-out system for unsolicited telephone calls.
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In contrast, “do not track” is like getting the free telephone service but being able to opt out of the marketing calls. When consumers go online, in most cases they are receiving some free content or services — such as email, search, data storage, social networking, news, information, entertainment, games and more. The costs of these free services are covered by advertisements. And to get a good return on these ads, companies often use targeted advertising to show ads that are more likely to be of interest to the consumer.
If consumers opt out of the targeted ads that are paying for their access to a free website, then they should not get access to that site — or they should have to pay for the site in some other way, such as through a subscription. Otherwise these consumers are trying to get something for nothing, making the internet experience worse for everyone.
Proponents of “do not track” want consumers to get access to free content and services while having corporations pay the bill. Unfortunately, that is not sustainable. If everyone acts in their own self-interest, the collective good collapses. There will be no free apps and services for anyone, but there will be more paid services, widening the digital divide. Moreover, the expense of complying with this requirement would be substantial, raising costs on businesses of all sizes who would pass on these expenses to consumers.
Instead of trying to revive a failed idea, policymakers should preserve the internet ecosystem by opting out of “do not track” once and for all.
Daniel Castro is vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and director of the Center for Data Innovation.
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