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Techies, not lawmakers, can curb online tracking

By Christopher Wolf and Jules Polonetsky, Special to CNN
Christopher Wolf, left, and Jules Polonetsky
Christopher Wolf, left, and Jules Polonetsky
  • Christopher Wolf and Jules Polonetsky: 2003 law against spam hasn't been effective
  • Sophisticated spam filters are the most effective tools today to fight spam, they say
  • Online tracking to deliver targeted advertising is internet's new scourge
  • Writers: Best way to stop it isn't a "do not track" registry but technological advances

Editor's note: Christopher Wolf and Jules Polonetsky are co-chairmen of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank in Washington that promotes responsible data practices.

(CNN) -- Unsolicited and unwanted e-mail was flooding our in- boxes in 2003. Congress reacted by enacting the CAN-SPAM law. That took care of the problem, right? Wrong. Today, spam remains a scourge.

Software company Symantec, which studies the problem, reports almost 87 percent of all e-mail sent round the world in October was spam. And that's despite the "Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003."

So what stops most of the unwanted spam from entering our email in-boxes? Technology. Sophisticated spam filters, deployed by e-mail providers, network operators and sometimes consumers themselves, are the most effective tools today to fight spam. CAN-SPAM has a role to play, for sure, but its effectiveness is limited, to say the least.

Recent headlines point to unwanted online tracking, used to deliver targeted advertising, as the internet's new scourge.

Advertisers are using technology to collect anonymous information about our web surfing habits to deliver online ads deemed of interest. When you were shopping online for a car last year, it was no coincidence if car ads appeared in the spaces for ads on web sites you visited. Some people think that online tracking is creepy, while some find it beneficial to receive relevant ads and appreciate that it subsidizes free content.

To be sure, online tracking is not in the same category as spam, which has no consumer benefits whatsoever.

But wherever you stand on the question, the Federal Trade Commission and consumer advocates believe that consumers should have a say in whether they are tracked, even anonymously.

Industry groups agree, in part, and have set in place a program where users can easily turn off the use of tracking data for targeted ads.

Congress is holding a hearing during the lame-duck session on the advisability of a "do not track" law that might require the government to create a technical list and mechanism users could employ to opt out of online tracking. Legislative proposals for such a law are expected when the new Congress convenes in January.

At Stanford University, Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student in computer science and law, and Arvind Narayanan, a post-doctoral researcher, have advanced a technological solution that enables users to opt out of web tracking, including behavioral advertising.

Their "do not track" technology adds a header to a web browser request for internet content that says "This user does not want to be tracked online." Think of it as a type of do not trespass sign.

The internet world would then be on notice that the user does not want technology interacting with his or her computer for tracking purposes. One major benefit to their solution is that existing computer law likely would make that request enforceable and would make ignoring it risky for businesses.

The Stanford-developed technology is in its early stages, but it is a far more elegant solution than has been proposed before.

A law mandating a "do not track" registry patterned after the "do not call" law is widely seen as impractical and ineffective. And many are concerned that a static law passed in 2011 will be obsolete against advances in technology, let alone against the technologies of those determined to avoid the law.

And although targeted ads are different from spam because the consumer sees an ad no matter what, the experience with CAN-SPAM is illustrative.

So, too, can the experience of using technology to fight spam inform the discussion about how to empower consumers to exercise control over whether they are tracked online. In the race for a solution between members of Congress and technologists, our money is on the technologists.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writers.