Online privacy is evolving. Does it matter to you? (Update)

Apr 24, 2013 by Anne Flaherty
In this Jan. 11, 2013 file photo, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. speaks in Charleston, W.Va. Online privacy rules are changing. The question now is how much you'll care. Rockefeller planned a hearing Wednesday to press his proposal to subject companies to penalties by the Federal Trade Commission if they violate a consumer's "do not track" request. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert, File)

(AP)—Online privacy rules are changing. The question now is how much consumers will care.

America's tech industry is finalizing voluntary disclosure standards on the sensitive information being sucked from your smartphone like your location, surfing habits and contacts. Senate Democrats are pushing for a clearer opt-out button for all online tracking. And Microsoft is offering a new browser that encourages people to block the technology that enables tracking.

Industry officials say they understand some people want greater control. But they are betting that consumers don't really mind trading some basic information about themselves for free access.

"Consumers are very pragmatic people," Lou Mastria, managing director of the Digital Advertising Alliance, said in an interview this week. "They want free content. They understand there's a value exchange. And they're OK with it."

Mobile applications like Google Maps, Angry Birds and GasBuddy have become popular, inexpensive ways to personalize smartphones or tablets and improve their functionality. Often free or just 99 cents to download, apps can turn a phone into a sophisticated roaming office or game console with interactive maps and 24-7 connectivity.

But like all those websites that offer medical advice or parenting tips, there's a hitch: They want information from you like your birthdate or local postal code. Developers say data collection is necessary for the software to work as promised and to reward the intellectual creativity behind it.

"There's no free lunch," said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. "It's essentially a quid pro quo. You'll trade a little bit of information for all that free content and great services."

The online privacy debate has stumped Congress and prompted limited input from the Obama administration, mindful of consumers' concerns but reluctant to crush a growing industry in a difficult economy.

Some lawmakers, mostly Democrats but some libertarian Republicans, say consumers should have the option of not being tracked at all. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, planned a hearing Wednesday to press his proposal to subject companies to penalties by the Federal Trade Commission if they violate a consumer's "do not track" request.

Industry is pushing back. The Digital Advertising Alliance points to its web-based icon program that links consumers to an opt-out site of participating advertisers. They say some 20 million people have visited their site and only 1 million of those consumers chose to opt out of all ad tracking.

But privacy advocates, backed by the FTC, say the issue goes well beyond targeted advertising, particularly when it comes to a mobile device. Because a smartphone can divulge a person's location, the FTC warned in a recent report that detailed profiles of a person's movements can be collected over time and in surprising ways, revealing a person's habits and patterns and making them vulnerable to stalking or identity theft.

Some researchers also say they suspect retailers are engaging in "price discrimination"—the practice of setting a price based on personal data, such as the average home price in their area or a person's proximity to a competitor.

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