Privacy advocates have run out of patience with what they call predatory practices by online advertisers that track users' activity and Tuesday called on Congress to enact regulations to protect consumers.
The coalition sent a letter outlining its concerns and recommendations to Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), George Radanovich (R-Calif.), Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas).
The privacy group includes The Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and The World Privacy Forum.
"Information about a consumer's health, financial condition, age, sexual orientation and other personal attributes can be inferred from online tracking and used to target the person for payday loans, subprime mortgages, bogus health cures and other dubious products and services," the group said in the letter. "Children are an especially vulnerable target audience since they lack the capacity to evaluate ads."
The organization specifically takes issue with behavioral advertising, which it defines as the "practice of collecting and compiling data from and about an individual's activities, interests, preferences, behaviors or communications for interactive advertising and marketing targeted to the individual."
An overview of the group's concerns can be found here.
"Tracking people's every move online is an invasion of privacy," the coalition said in a statement. "Online behavioral tracking is even more distressing when consumers aren't aware who is tracking them, that it's happening or how the information will be used. Often consumers are not asked for their consent and have no meaningful control over the collection and use of their information, often by third parties with which they have no relationships."
The group also said that government regulation may also protect consumers against, well, the government.
"Limiting commercial tracking of our online activities may also help protect privacy against the government, which often gets information about us from private companies," said Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The coalition recommends oversight of online advertising by The Federal Trade Commission and said the FTC should maintain an online registry of groups that employ behavioral tracking.
"Sensitive information should not be collected or used for behavioral tracking or targeting," the group said in a statement. "Sensitive information should be defined by the FTC and should include data about health, finances, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and political activity."
Another recommendation was to give consumers an opt-out choice regarding tracking practices.
A primer released by the advocates outlining their concerns and recommendations can be accessed here.
In answer to previous criticism, The American Association of Advertising Agencies in July issued self-regulation policies, but privacy advocates deemed them ineffective at best.
"We've seen in industry after industry what happens when the fox is left to guard the chicken coop -- consumers lose," said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, in a statement. "Regulations that can be enforced to hold the industry accountable are essential."
Not surprisingly, advertisers were rankled by the coalition's call for government regulation, and particularly took issue with the proposed opt-out recommendations. Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said the practice would be "devastating to the consumer experience online," according to MediaPost.com.