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One of the many reasons the Internet has bloomed in the U.S. is that the administration, under the leadership of Ira Magaziner, former head of U.S. Internet policy, allowed the World Wide Web to grow without putting unnecessary restrictions on it. At a Kelsey Group conference on Interactive Newspapers in 1996, Esther Dyson, then the chairwoman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke to our audience about the EFF defending consumer rights in the digital world. Some countries, concerned about what people might say or do on the Net, did put rules and regulations in place and they inhibited its growth.

Yesterday, the FTC issued a very unsurprising decision allowing Google’s proposed merger with DoubleClick. More importantly, the FTC also stepped into the issue of privacy by taking a tentative step regarding behavioral advertising (the tracking of what a user does online — from searches, to Web pages visited, to content viewed). I believe that the companion announcement is more important than the Google/DoubleClick decision. The FTC recognized that behavioral advertising does provide real “benefits to consumers in the form of free content and personalized advertising.”

Behavioral advertising, in theory, is good for consumers and good for advertisers, especially as more advertising moves online. The jury is still out on consumer acceptance of even the most customized advertising on our mobile phones. However, as the use of video increases on the Internet, personalized advertising becomes very attractive, especially if it offers a coupon or other mechanism to lower prices. The trade-off is that some computer in a cloud somewhere knows all about me because of what I do on the Internet.

In my view, I should be able to direct advertising in a way that is acceptable to me. This is a difficult challenge, but my wish is that in 2008 we make substantial progress in addressing privacy principles. The FTC’s voluntary privacy guidelines would require consumers to have the ability to choose whether they want their information collected. Consumers could also request reasonable security for that data and require express consent before the information can be used in a way that is different from what a company promises when it collects data.

People are understandably concerned about pornography, spam and how it interacts with the First Amendment. I believe privacy, or the lack of it, is the one issue that could derail future Internet growth. So the second part of my wish is that companies abide by the voluntary privacy guidelines proposed by the FTC. Every organization involved in local media should endorse this concept.

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