Senator Rockefeller's folly

Be Afraid!Politicians love an issue that allows them to appear on the side of the little guy against the bad guys. Their love affair with such blinds them to the truth, but in politics, there’s no need for truth, if it gets in the way of a good soundbite.

Witness the sad rantings of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) during a hearing of his Senate Commerce Committee on the subject of behavioral tracking online. Sensing political mileage, Senator Rockefeller wants “do-not-follow” legislation that would help the FTC in its battle against advertising online.

This is one of those issues that just makes me mad, because the matter cannot possibly get a fair hearing when loons like Rockefeller are out there making noise. Here, thanks to an article in Broadcasting & Cable, is the rapier quick mind of Senator Rockefeller:

“Imagine this scenario,” said Rockefeller. “[Y]ou’re in a shopping mall. And while you’re there, there’s a machine recording every store you enter and every product you look at, and every product you buy. You go into a bookstore.  The machine records every book you purchase or peruse.  Then, you go to the drugstore.  The machine is watching you there, meticulously recording every product you pick up – from the shampoo to the allergy medicine to your personal prescription. The machine records your every move that day. Then, based on what you look at, where you shop, what you buy – it builds a personality profile on you.  It predicts what you may want in the future – and starts sending you coupons. Further, it tells businesses what a good potential client you may be – and shares your personality profile with them.”

Rockefeller said that scenario is playing out “every second of every day.”

This is idiotic demagoguery, and that’s being kind. “The Machine.” Oooo. Be scared!

Well, imagine this scenario, Senator Rockefeller. A man or woman walks into a mall wearing a hat on his or her head, a mask over his or her face and gloves. He or she walks into a store, apparently looking for something, and proceeds up and down every aisle, touching everything. He or she enters the bookstore and demands that all of the staff turn their backs as he or she scans the shelves, again, apparently looking for something or perhaps just killing time. Upon leaving, the workers are permitted to return to their work, which we assumes means helping people find what they’re looking for. But wait! Everybody is wearing masks and hats and gloves! Now multiply this scenario by thousands of shoppers similarly attired, wandering the mall, drifting in and out of shops, and you have exactly what is hoped for by the absolute anonymity legislation that prohibits tracking.

We need policing, of course, and the industry is well aware of the need for self-governance here, but proponents of new laws are only using the issue to better themselves politically. A browser-level “do-not-follow” is a bad idea in an era when privacy itself needs an honest debate.

The FTC would better serve consumers by cleaning up existing matters — like spam of all sorts (including telephone and regular mail) — than sticking its nose in an artificial scenario from the mind of a politically-motivated U.S. Senator.

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