tion online comes in the form of self-regulation by the parties that stand to
benefit the most from capturing user
data: online advertisers.
However, self-regulation has proven
wholly insufficient. No lesser authority
than the FTC determined that “
industry efforts to address privacy through
self-regulation have been too slow, and
up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection.” 33
When self-regulations are present,
there are no serious sanctions for violating the rules that advertisers draw
up among themselves. Nevertheless,
the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI)
has produced a Code of Conduct that
requires opt-in consent for advertisers
to use precise information about health
conditions such as cancer and mental-health. 22 Yet the same policy also states
that “member companies may seek to
target users on the basis of such general health categories as headaches.” 22
Given the range of ailments between
cancer and a headache is incredibly
broad, this directive provides virtually
no oversight. Likewise, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) provides rules
that also appear to protect health information, but legal scholars have determined that “an Internet user searching
for information about or discussing a
specific medical condition may still be
tracked under the DAA’s principles.” 12
Potential interventions. Although
this problem is complex, it is not intractable and there are several ways
health privacy risks may be mitigated.
First, there is no reason for non-profits, educational institutions, or gov-ernment-operated sites to be leaking
sensitive user information to commercial parties. While advertising revenue
keeps commercial sites running, non-profits gain support from donors and
grants. Fixing this situation could be as
simple as an internal policy directive
on a per-institution basis, or as expansive as adopting language that would
deny funding to institutions that leak
As for commercial-oriented sites, it
is true they rely on ad-tracking revenue.
However, regulatory and legislative
bodies have the authority to draft and
implement policies that would require
a mandatory limitation on how long
information from health-related web-
sites could be retained and how it could
be used. Such policy initiatives could
have significant impact, and would re-
flect the preferences of the public.
Finally, talented engineers may devote a portion of the time they spend
analyzing data to developing intelligent filters to keep sensitive data quarantined. The spark of change could be
the result of a single engineer’s 20%
time project. If the mad rush to ingest ever more data is tempered with
a disciplined approach to filtering out
potentially sensitive data, businesses
and users may both benefit equally.
Proving privacy harms is always a difficult task. However, this study has
demonstrated that data on health information seeking is being collected
by an array of entities that are not subject to regulation or oversight. Health
information may be inadvertently
misused by some companies, sold by
others, or even stolen by criminals. By
recognizing that health information
deserves to be treated with special
care, we may mitigate what harm may
already be occurring and proactively
avoid future problems.
Acknowledgments. The author
thanks the anonymous reviewers for
wise revisions. Thanks to A. Blanford,
M. Delli Carpini, S. González-Bailón, J.
Goodwin, B. Hoffman, B. Kroeger, D.
Liebermann, N. Maruyama, T. Patel,
V. Pickard, J. Poinsett, J. Rosen and J.
Smith for their invaluable feedback.
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Timothy Libert ( email@example.com) is a doctoral
student in the Annenberg School for Communication at
the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
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