"Do-Not-Track" Bills: Bad for Business--and Customers

Last Updated May 9, 2011 12:46 PM EDT

When Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) announced plans to introduce a do-not-track bill on Friday that would give consumers more control over their personal information online, the response was almost unanimous: It's about time.

The proposed law "is likely to gain strong support from consumer groups" declared The Hill. Proposed laws like this one are said to have strong bipartisan support, including a "do not track" law that's working its way through the California legislature.

But is it right for your customers?

Google and Facebook are opposed to California's do-not-track law, saying it would place an undue regulatory burden on them.

And what's bad for business is bad for customers, right?

I don't know. I've seen lots of regulations that businesses fought against, and declared as anti-consumer by virtue of that argument, but that ended up being quite helpful.

Be careful what you ask for
A better question is: Are customers being served by opting out of letting businesses track them? I mean that in a broad sense, tracking anything from mobile devices, like Apple, to website users, like many online business do.

No one has seen the federal "do not track" bill yet. It's expected to be introduced this week.

We know that for some location-based services, tracking isn't optional. It's essential. For example, if Foursquare asked me every time I tried to check in to verify that I wanted Foursquare to track me, it would drive me slowly mad, and I would eventually stop using the service.

We also know that tracking customers, a la Apple, helps pinpoint your location faster than if you were using only the GPS system.

But perhaps the biggest problem with do not track laws is that businesses won't know their customers as well, because they won't be able to follow them as closely. Collecting data on customers can help an ethical business provide better customer service, and even improve service.

For example: If a wireless company can monitor dropped calls by tracking where its customers lose a connection, it can more quickly address the problem. If it knows a majority of its customers like to visit a certain page and purchase a widget, then it could make the page more prominent through its site.

Under a "do not track" law, they might still be able to monitor those issues. But they wouldn't get the same rich data as when they tracked everyone.

Don't get me wrong. As a consumer advocate, I think these new laws are long overdue. I want to control who sees me, and when.

But as someone who is blogging about the art of customer service from a management perspective, I'm not entirely convinced this is a good idea.

If the new laws make opting in to tracking so tedious that no one does it, I can't imagine a scenario under which a competent business would be able to better serve its customers.

We'll have our privacy. But what will we have sacrificed for it?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.

Photo: andyarthur/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.