Privacy Courtesy of an Internet Police State? Thanks but No Thanks

We’ve been hearing a lot lately from people who think it’s time to start policing the Internet.

Last week, the U.S. Congress began holding hearings to determine whether it should outlaw the practice of tracking Internet users’ browsing habits. Meanwhile, the European Union started exploring the possibility of trying to make Google change its method of delivering search results.

The people leading most efforts to put legal curbs on Internet-based businesses profess to be to be acting out of a desire to protect consumers. They want to shield us from the evils of cyberspace — all those trackers lurking in the background of websites, waiting for just the right moment to feed us ads for things we shouldn’t be buying.

As a frequent Internet user, I’m glad to know that someone has my back. However, I question the wisdom of trying to turn the Internet into a police state, primarily because I don’t think it’s possible to regulate the Internet in a way that would benefit the average user.

Consider the prospect of prohibiting the tracking of users’ browsing habits. The current suggested method for doing that for doing that is to create something called a “Do Not Track List.” Not surprisingly, this proposal has been likened to the law passed in 2003 that allows consumers to stop telemarketers from intruding on their quiet time simply by signing up to have their phone number placed in a National Do Not Call Registry.

That law has worked well for consumers. I signed up for the list, and now the only time I’m bothered by unwelcome telephone solicitations is during political campaign season. (How those calls got exempted from the ban is a subject for another column.)

No Way to Ensure Compliance

While the objective of anti-tracking legislation would be similar to that of the Do Not Call List — to protect consumers from what at least are perceived be to unwelcome intrusions — those seeking to apply this model to the Internet seem to be ignoring two important facts: 1) This is not 2003, and 2) Monitoring telephone calls is a lot easier than keeping tabs on Internet traffic.

In fact, one of the things the Congressional hearings on this matter revealed is there currently is no reliable way of ensuring compliance with a do-not-track law. The most plausible approach seems to be a method developed by a Stanford University research team that calls for embedding a header in your Web browser that transmits a signal telling all the sites that you visit that you don’t want to be tracked.

It wouldn’t take much for users to embed these headers in their browsers, but it won’t do any good unless all website operators adopt corresponding technology that listens for the do-not-track signal. Who’s going to make sure that technology is present — and always turned on — across the entire Internet?

Regulators might have an easier time imposing restrictions on Google’s actions in the search arena, but I’m not sure they should even bother. This is an issue because Google is being accused of manipulating search results to the favor of its own services.

Arguing Over Search Results

These accusations are being leveled by companies that rely on Google’s search engine to push customers their way, and now find themselves, in effect, competing with new services — such as a health website — that Google is creating to expand its own revenue stream.

Obviously, there’s a lot at stake here for both Google and its competitors/customers. Two thirds of the people conducting Internet searches in the U.S. use Google’s engine. In some European countries, that number is 90 percent, which explains why EU regulators are so interested in this situation. If Google is, indeed, manipulating search results to its advantage, it could be causing European companies a substantial amount of business.

Google argues that its engine generates the best set of results for users, and that’s the case even when those results put Google’s own services at the top of the page.

I don’t know enough about the inner workings of Google — or search technology in general — to know whether Google is manipulating results for its own advantage. However, I do know that if enough users feel they are not getting objective answers to their search queries, they will start using other search engines.

Regulators concerned about how big Google is getting also should be aware of the natural evolution of technology companies.

Tech companies typically become successful because they hit on a new idea that quickly becomes wildly popular — Apple and Facebook are primary examples. That success also usually breeds competitors, and it’s normally only a matter of time before one or more of those competitors establishes a solid foothold in the market. Apple is experiencing that now, with Android phones eating away at the iPhone lead in the smartphone space.

At some point, the market itself will spawn a real competitor to Google. If consumers don’t like Google’s business practices, that competitor will emerge sooner rather than later. So, there really is no reason for the government to start sticking its nose into our Internet browsers.

TechNewsWorld columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.

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