09.21.2012 0

The FTC needs to butt out on cookies

NRD Editor’s Note: This column first appeared at TheHill.com

By Rick Manning — Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz has been busily traveling Europe trying to get the European Union to crack down on the use of tracking cookies that online advertisers depend upon to get the right ad onto the screen of the right person.

If you’ve ever wondered why the ads that pop up when you surf the Web seem to be tailored to your interests, it is because they are. As most people are aware, many common sites either track your activity within that site (Facebook), or purchase online ads based upon the proven interests of the individual computer user.

This online advertising is what helps pay for, or monetize, private-sector websites that cater to the various diverse interests of people throughout the world.

Monetizing the Web, without charging individuals fees to access a website’s content, has been one of the foremost problems facing Web-based businesses.

Likewise, the concerns of consumers that they are being tracked everywhere they go on the Web provides a counter to the push toward wholesale Web tracking, with some prominent browser companies offering easy ways for their users to avoid these tracking cookies.

Recently, Leibowitz stepped into this free market push/pull between Internet browsers who are competing for business and providing differentiation for their customers based upon “privacy protection” and those who depend upon that very information to sell their products or make their own websites profitable.

In his zeal to “protect consumers”, the FTC commissioner has been weighing in and influencing policies on this issue overseas, attempting to establish precedent over there that affects the U.S. market.

This is troubling, because Leibowitz is going far beyond the scope of U.S. law and attempting to create a European dynamic that settles the question in the U.S., avoiding the give-and-take of our legislative and rulemaking processes and ultimately taking this choice away from consumers.

Rather than picking winners and losers in this debate, the FTC should just butt out and let the market decide. Consumers will decide if they want cookies blocked by the browser options they choose, and it is up to those companies to market those features to their customers and beyond.

Customers will decide if they want a free product like Facebook taking the information gleaned through their own self-identified likes, shares and clicks and allowing advertisers to target products that the user is most likely to purchase or view directly. If Facebook’s users don’t like the internal company policy, they can easily enough stop using the relationship interface website. No one compels anyone to log in.

Those who create the Web spaces that we enjoy are just beginning to figure out how to best monetize content. For the U.S. government to intervene, rather than allowing consumers to make the choice based upon their decisions, is not only the height of arrogance, but could forever change the Web as we know it.

Just tell the FTC to butt out, and let consumers decide.

Rick Manning (@rmanning957) is the Director of Communications for Americans for Limited Government, and served in the Bush administration’s Labor Department.

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