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Do new 'Do Not Track' guidelines for California businesses go far enough?

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Did you know you have the option of not being tracked when you browse the Internet? You're supposed to, at least in theory. From The New York Times: 

Every major Internet browser has a feature that lets you tell a website that you don’t want it to collect personal information about you when you visit.

And virtually every website ignores those requests. Tracking your online activities — and using that data to tailor marketing pitches — is central to how Internet companies make money...

The only major company that honors the signals is Twitter.

Yahoo, which was one of the first companies to respect “do not track” signals, announced last month that it would no longer do so.

On January 1, a new law went into effect in California requiring websites to tell consumers how they respond to "Do Not Track" requests. 

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris on Wednesday issued a 20-page guide for businesses to help them comply with the changes.

“California has proven that robust and balanced privacy protections are consistent with a thriving innovation economy,” Harris said in a statement. “This guide is a tool for businesses to create clear and transparent privacy policies that reflect the state’s privacy laws and allow consumers to make informed decisions.”

But many websites don't know how to do that, according to John Simpson, Director of Privacy Project at Consumer Watchdog.

"The problem right now is that so many of the privacy policies read as if they were written by lawyers who were written to confuse things and paid by the word to do it," said Simpson. "This is a way to show companies, particularly smaller companies, how to write simple, concise privacy policies that benefit the consumer."

Simpson the amendment that went into effect this year and the Attorney General's guide are positive steps, but he doesn't think they go far enough, because companies aren't actually prevented from tracking users.

"I think there needs to be specific legal obligations about not being able to gather certain kinds of data and not being able to use it,” said Simpson.

Here are some of the voluntary recommendations from the Attorney General's guide:

  • Prominently label the section of your policy regarding online tracking, for example: “California Do Not Track Disclosures.”
  • Describe how you respond to a browser’s Do Not Track signal or similar mechanisms within your privacy policy instead of providing a link to another website.
  • If third parties are or may be collecting personally identifiable information, say so in your privacy policy.
  • Explain your uses of personally identifiable information beyond what is necessary for fulfilling a customer transaction or for the basic functionality of the website or app.
  • Describe what personally identifiable information you collect from users, how you use it and how long you retain it.
  • Describe the choices a consumer has regarding the collection, use and sharing of his or her personal information.
  • Use plain, straightforward language that avoids legal jargon and use a format that makes the policy readable, such as a layered format. Use graphics or icons instead of text.
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