Web Users Push For More Privacy

Two bills were introduced last week pushing for stronger privacy protections online. At the same time, Web browsers are rolling out new features to give consumers more control over what advertisers know about you. Julia Angwin, a technology editor at the Wall Street Journal, offers her insight.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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NORRIS: Today on All Tech, we're talking cookies. No, not chocolate-chip cookies or the heart-shaped kind that you might see on Valentine's Day. We're talking about Web cookies. Those are the tools that advertisers use to track what you do online.

And there's a growing movement, called Do Not Track Me - sort of like the Do Not Call Registry for phones. Two bills were introduced in the House last week, pushing for stronger online privacy protections.

And to talk about this and other developments in online privacy, we're joined by Julia Angwin. She's a technology editor for the Wall Street Journal. Julia, welcome to the program.

BLOCK: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Let's start with a very quick overview. When I go on the Web, what are the common ways that companies try to track what I do?

BLOCK: Well, the most common way - as you said - is cookies, where somebody just places a little file on your machine, and it gives you an ID number. And everything that you do on the Web is now attributed to that file, and there's a big file - some database about everything that you're doing online. And that's the most common way. There's a bunch of other, ancillary technologies that feed into that but for most people, that's the basics.

NORRIS: Now, that might sound a little bit nefarious. But online advertisers say that things like cookies can improve your Internet browsing experiences - what allows you to be able to go online and not have to repeatedly type in passwords, or to call up a search and start all over again, because it sort of remembers what you do and what you like and what your preferences are.

BLOCK: It's true. The problem is, though, that we at the Wall Street Journal have been documenting for the past year in this series called "What They Know," about the prevalence of cookies for advertising purposes. So there are hundreds of companies placing these cookies on your machine. And we went to the top 50 Web sites, found 4,000 cookies.

Just a single, you know, visit to dictionary.com alone put 234 cookies on our machine. So I think what's concerning people is the idea that you don't really know who are these hundreds of companies, and what are they doing with it.

NORRIS: Congress is trying to address this; two bills were just introduced in the House. What's the general approach they're using?

BLOCK: So there's two different approaches in the House right now. There's Rep. Speier's bill, which is Do Not Track bill. She is basically piggybacking on the FTC's recommendation last year that the industry should develop a system called Do Not Track. And the FTC threw this out there, but they didn't have the authority to set up such a system. And they asked Congress to consider writing legislation to set up a system. So Rep. Speier introduced this Do Not Track bill.

NORRIS: And that's one of the two bills. What's the other bill?

BLOCK: The other bill is a bill that Rep. Bobby Rush, from Illinois, introduced in the last session - is reintroduced again. And this is addressing, actually, a bigger problem, which is that we don't have a - baseline federal privacy laws in the U.S.

We have laws which most people are familiar with - like HIPAA, which is your health privacy, or there's children's privacy. But there's not a baseline, just general data usage about individual's - standards. So he's trying to address setting up a standard baseline privacy legislation.

NORRIS: So, if consumers are concerned about their privacy online, what can they do? Some Internet browsers, for instance, are introducing new features.

BLOCK: So Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Web browser, it came out a few weeks ago and said, we're going to introduce a Do Not Track tool in our next version of our browser. And it would broadcast that message to all the Web sites you go to. And they would, in theory, comply with the request not to allow your data to be tracked by third parties.

Now, it's not applicable right now because no Web sites have said, OK, that's great. I'm going to respect this message that's coming from Firefox browsers. But Microsoft has taken a different approach. They have not agreed to this Do Not Track system. Instead, they have their own - sort of super-powered way of blocking, tracking, that they're going to introduce in Internet Explorer 9. And it's basically going to let consumers come up with their own list of people that they don't want to track them.

And interestingly, it will block sort of all communication between your computer and the tracking company's computer, which a lot of people are concerned that it may limit the delivery of ads. So you might not see ads, which I think a lot of Web site owners would be upset about.

NORRIS: Julie Angwin is a technology editor at the Wall Street Journal. Julia, thank you very much.

BLOCK: Thank you.

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