Privacy advocates applauded a decision by the
DoubleClick online ad agency not to amass a giant database tying
people's names to their Web surfing habits. But some state law
enforcers said the company didn't go far enough.
DoubleClick Inc. on Thursday backed off plans to cross-reference
its own vast records of Web sites consumers like to visit and shop
information many people had thought was confidential with lists
of millions of names and other identifying data.
While data on Web surfing is often tracked by online marketers,
the information can't easily be connected with a person's identity.
Privacy groups had worried that DoubleClick would build virtual
dossiers on consumers that could be sold to marketers. Users could
be deluged with junk mail as well as potentially be discriminated
against by businesses that track everything from health conditions
to income status.
The big New York-based firm electronically inserts
advertisements on about 1,500 Web sites on behalf of Web
"This is a great first step forward for Internet privacy,"
said Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a
Washington-based group that tracks civil liberties on the Internet.
"Companies will better recognize they have to take privacy into
account before building technologies or business practices on the
Internet," he said.
Weeks of legal actions and government probes into DoubleClick
have placed the online ad company at the center of a growing clash
between businesses seeking to exploit the Internet's pervasiveness
and those fearful of the consequences.
Yet not everyone was assuaged by Thursday's action. Michigan
Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, who had threatened to sue
DoubleClick, said she was pleased by "DoubleClick's acknowledgment
that it made a mistake" but remained wary of the company's privacy
Granholm continued to level criticism the company failed to
disclose to Internet users it is "systematically implanting"
electronic files on the hard drives of users' computers known as
"cookies" in tech parlance without their knowledge or consent.
Granholm, who is pushing for government rules to punish invaders
of people's Web privacy, said her office would meet with
DoubleClick on March 13, as planned, to discuss how the company
would address Michigan's concerns.
In addition to Michigan's threatened lawsuit, at least six
private suits have been filed against DoubleClick. Federal
regulators and New York state law enforcers have launched probes,
and several DoubleClick customers backed away from using the ad
Kevin O'Connor, DoubleClick's chief executive, said in a
statement, "I made a mistake by planning to merge names with
anonymous user activity across Web sites in the absence of
government and industry privacy standards."
"I think it's obviously significant," said Marc Rotenberg,
general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a
Washington-based privacy advocacy group. "The real critical thing
to understand here is how important anonymity is to the success of
DoubleClick and other Web companies, for their part, argue that
industry should be allowed to police itself and that "targeted
advertising" directed at consumers with specific online profiles
is beneficial to both business and Internet users.
"There's all sorts of degrees," O'Connor said in an interview.
"If no targeted advertising is available on the Internet, it's
almost impossible to make the Internet work. I'm confident we all
share the same goals keeping the Internet free."