Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, A New Regulatory Approach for Behavioral Targeting

Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, A New Regulatory Approach for Behavioral Targeting

Comment by: Omer Tene

PLSC 2013

Workshop draft abstract:

Behavioral targeting forms the core of many privacy related questions on the Internet. It is an early example of ambient intelligence, technology that senses and anticipates people’s behavior to adapt the environment to their needs. This makes behavioral targeting a good case study to examine some of the difficulties that privacy law faces in the twenty-first century.

The paper concerns the following question. In the context of behavioral targeting, how could regulation be improved to protect privacy, without unduly restricting the freedom of choice of Internet users?

The paper explores two ways of privacy protection. The first focuses on empowering the individual, for example by requiring companies to obtain informed consent of the individual before data processing takes place. In Europe for instance, personal data “must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law” (article 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union). The phrase “on the basis of the consent of the person” seems to be a loophole in the regime, as many Internet users click “I agree” to any statement that is presented to them. Insights from behavioral economics cast doubt on the effectiveness of the empowerment approach as a privacy protection measure.

The second approach focuses on protecting rather than empowering the individual. If aiming to empower people is not the right tactic to protect privacy, maybe specific prohibitions could be introduced. Some might say that the tracking of Internet users is not proportional to the purposes of marketers, and therefore should be prohibited

altogether. But less extreme measures can be envisaged. Perhaps different rules could apply to different circumstances. Are data gathered while Internet users are looking to buy shoes, less sensitive than data that reveal which books they consider buying or which online newspapers they read? Do truly innocent data exist?

One of the most difficult issues would be how to balance such prohibitions with personal autonomy, since prohibitions appear to limit people’s freedom of choice. The paper draws inspiration from consumer law, where similar problems arise. When should the law protect rather than empower the individual? A careful balance would have to be struck between protecting people and respecting their  freedom of choice. The paper concludes with recommendations to improve privacy protection, without unduly restricting people’s freedom of choice.