Imagine stopping at an information kiosk during a long road trip to use the rest room and check some maps, then later finding GPS tracking devices unwittingly attached to your car that have monitored everywhere you've traveled since you left that information kiosk.
That's how Doc Searls, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology & Society and the author of the Intention Economy, describes browsing the Internet. A good example is Dictionary.com. The online dictionary often appears at the top of search engine results when users are looking for a quick definition. Once they've visited the actual site to get that definition, they're targeted by 234 tracking mechanisms, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The only difference between these two examples is that, when online, most people never see that GPS tracking device.
"You don't expect someone to stick something to your car and track where you're going, and yet that's normative now, because there's a kind of no-harm, no-foul orientation to that," Searls says. "It's not that we in any genuine sense think that's OK. It's that 99.99% of people have no idea what's going on because it's out of sight, out of mind."
Of course, this is nothing new, and efforts at protecting consumer privacy have culminated in the Do Not Track protocol that has drawn support from Microsoft, Mozilla and Apple and is currently being standardized by the World Wide Web Consortium. Congress has also made an effort, introducing the Do Not Track Online Act of 2011 last May.
However, standards and legislation created to govern the use of technology to gather user data are unnecessary, Searls says. That's because alternative approaches to e-commerce can help businesses use data more effectively without having to monitor their activity and hoard their information.
"I don't think we need Do Not Track legislation," Searls says. "I think it's a bad idea at this stage, because we don't have the technical solutions to the problem, the problem basically being that we got stuck at client/server in 1995 with the first Web servers and especially with the invention of the cookie, and we have this normative system in which almost all the power resides on the server side and not on the client side."
This cookie-based economic approach to advertising is hampering the communicative power of the Internet, Searls says. The guessing game that many companies are playing with big data -- analyzing where customers have been and trying to identify what they might want next -- is less effective than a relationship in which buyers provide their wants and needs voluntarily. Businesses really don't need to monitor Internet users' activity when, in a two-way world where anyone can connect with any company via social networks, all they really have to do is ask.
"If I actually was involved in your stupid game and I know you by name and you know me, and I knew who you were and we had a trusting relationship, I'd be able to give you better information," Searls says.
Implementing Do Not Track would perpetuate the vendor-first relationship that dictates business transactions over the Internet, Searls says. Instead of engaging in a battle against companies' data collection practices, the efforts of those in the e-commerce industry should be directed at establishing a new dynamic in which businesses do not track Web users simply because there are more lucrative ways of gathering accurate and useful information.
"The case that I'm making there is just that if we were involved as capable and independent human beings we'd be able to form genuine relationships with entities that are genuinely interested in helping us out, rather than scoring a few micro-cents on the placement of one ad in a system in which they have lots and lots of opacity built in so they can deny the evils of following you around," Searls says.
Searls isn't the first to declare that Do Not Track regulations may be unnecessary. In March, Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz praised the "extraordinary strides" in the Digital Advertising Alliance's pursuit of an organic browser-based system that prevents online tracking. Responding to an FTC report that asked how businesses should use the increasingly detailed information that users leave online, Leibowitz gave what he called the FTC's "prevailing answer."
"Consumers should have that choice, and consumers should have that control," the FTC chairman said, according to PC World.
Indeed, the Do Not Track Online Act of 2011 has yet to make any progress since Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced it over a year ago. GovTrack estimates that the bill now has a 3% chance of passing the Senate.
Searls praised the efforts of several companies currently developing consumer data-conscious services, such as Privowny, Personal.com and The Customer's Voice. Privowny, for example, encrypts its users' data so that not even the company itself can recognize it. While this approach has its risks -- the company's website warns that if the user forgets the password then they may lose some information for good -- Searls says it is the most private method of storing data. If even police request that information from Privowny, the encryption prevents the company from being able to produce it.
Searls makes the clear distinction that the intention-based economy does not mean less power or money to the business side. On the contrary, this approach rids the Internet economy of irrelevant advertisements, and puts buyers and sellers in a mutually beneficial relationship.
"We're going at it again from the same angle, and not enough on the buyer side, which the Internet has just as much implication for helping," Searls says. "And I think it's just because it's too easy to set up yet another site with yet another exclusive service. And it's fine, and those will be good, but to me they're not interesting enough. So I've just sort of picked out this one quarter of the world that I think can be one half of the world, which is what the buyer has to say."
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies, privacy and enterprise mobility for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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