The Value of a College Education

Below is an excerpt from the Overview section of this week's CQ Researcher report entitled "The Value of a College Education: Is a four-year degree the only path to a secure future?" by Thomas J. Billitteri, November 20, 2009

Mike Rowe, host of the cable-TV show “Dirty Jobs,” has a thing or two to say about work and education.

For 30 years, writes Rowe, whose show profiles some of the more challenging sides of blue-collar work, “we've convinced ourselves that ‘good jobs’ are the result of a four-year degree. That's bunk. Not all knowledge comes from college.” [Footnote 1]

Rowe's plainspoken view contradicts the lofty advice routinely dispensed to young people, that a bachelor's degree is a fundamental requirement for achieving the American Dream.

But with college costs soaring, skilled jobs such as welders and medical technicians in demand and millions of young adults ill-prepared for the rigors of a university education, some policy experts argue that while post-high-school education is vital in today's global economy, a four-year degree may be unnecessary for economic security — and perhaps even ill-advised.

“In many cases, young people think they are going to make substantial income just by having a college degree,” says Edwin L. Herr, a professor emeritus of education at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Other Ways to Win, a book that analyzes alternatives to the traditional bachelor's degree. “There are a lot of people destined for unhappiness if we simply say that everybody ought to go to college. I don't think society in general requires everybody to go to college. It certainly requires people who have skills, and there certainly are ways to obtain those skills other than a four-year college.”

The Obama administration seems to agree. Under his American Graduation Initiative, announced in July, President Barack Obama is calling for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020, including those who earn associate degrees or certificates or who go on to graduate from four-year institutions. Beyond that, he wants every American to commit to at least a year of higher education or career training, whether at a community college or a four-year school, or through a vocational program or apprenticeship. [Footnote 2]

The United States had the highest percentages of college graduates in the world for most of the post-World War II era, but now the rates remain stagnant, according to the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education. About 39 percent of U.S. adults hold a two- or four-year degree, but in some countries, including Japan and South Korea, more than half of young adults ages 25 to 34 hold degrees, a foundation report said. “Even more disturbing for the U.S.,” it added, “rates in these other countries continue to climb while ours remain stagnant.”

Lumina estimated that at current college-graduation rates, “there will be a shortage of 16 million college-educated adults in the American workforce by 2025.” [Footnote 3]

Obama proposes to spend a record $12 billion over the next decade to strengthen the nation's system of 1,200 community colleges, part of a larger goal to restore the United States as the leader in college graduates by 2020.

“[F]or a long time there have been politicians who have spoken of training as a silver bullet and college as a cure-all,” Obama said. “It's not, and we know that.” But, he added, “We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs — or even keep those jobs here in America — without the training offered by community colleges.” [Footnote 4]

To be sure, a bachelor's degree is a laudable goal for many young adults, one that can pay big dividends in personal satisfaction, career opportunities and earnings. In 2007 people with a bachelor's degree earned an average $57,181, or 63 percent more than those with some college or an associate's degree and 83 percent more than those with only a high-school diploma. [Footnote 5] And the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in September for adults 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 8.5 percent for those with less college and 10.8 percent for those with only a high-school education. [Footnote 6]
Types of Community Colleges, Enrollment and Demographics

Still, a four-year degree is not always the best option, workforce and public-policy experts argue.

For one thing, many students simply aren't cut out for college. “No one wants to really talk about this, but a lot of [teens] come out of high school unprepared to do legitimate college-level work,” says Kenneth C. Gray, a Pennsylvania State emeritus professor of education and coauthor with Herr of Other Ways to Win.

At the same time, four years of college demands a steep investment that may take years to recoup. In-state tuition, fees and room and board at a public four-year college now average $15,213 per year, up 5.9 percent in a year, though student aid often lowers the tab. At private schools, the bill — not counting any aid — runs $35,636 per year, up 4.3 percent in a year. [Footnote 7]

And a bachelor's degree is no guarantee of career success or upward mobility. Much may depend on the field of study. For instance, degrees in health care, computer science or engineering may offer far better prospects than those in the humanities.

Meanwhile, many good jobs simply don't require a bachelor's degree. About half of all employment is in so-called middle-skill occupations — jobs that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year degree, according to a 2007 study by Robert Lerman, an economics professor at American University, and Harry J. Holzer, a professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. Demand for such workers will likely remain strong compared to the supply, they said. [Footnote 8]

“Real pay for radiological technicians increased 23 percent between 1997 and 2005, speech/respiratory therapists saw real increases of 10 to 14 percent and real pay for electricians rose by 18 percent,” they found. “These increases compare very favorably with the overall 5 percent increase for the average American worker.” [Footnote 9]

In June, in the depths of the current economic downturn, The New York Times noted that “employers are begging for qualified applicants for certain occupations, even in hard times.” [Footnote 10] Most of the jobs take years of experience, the newspaper noted. But some jobs in high demand, such as those in welding, don't require four years of college.

“Not everyone needs a degree, and not every job requires a four-year degree,” says Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College, a six-campus institution in and around Charlotte, N.C., with more than 70,000 part- and full-time students. “For decades, only about 22 percent of jobs have required a baccalaureate degree or higher, and yet 75 percent of the jobs consistently require training beyond high school but below a baccalaureate. That's community college.”

Still, whether community colleges, which get most of their money from recession-battered state and local governments, can keep up with demand remains an open question, especially as the Obama administration puts them at the center of his postsecondary education policy. [Footnote 11]

Nearly 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college last year, a record number that was propelled by swelling community college attendance, according to Pew Research Center data reported by The New York Times. [Footnote 12]

“At the same time that we have tremendous increases in enrollment, states are cutting budgets like crazy,” says Norma G. Kent, vice president for communications at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Our tradition has been to do more with less, but there gets to be a stretching point beyond which you cannot go. Our credo is open access and open doors, and whether consciously or de facto, we are turning away students.”
In California, community colleges lost $840 million in state funding in the combined fiscal 2008–2009 and 2009–2010 budgets, according to Scott Lay, president and CEO of the Community College League of California. Institutions face eliminating course offerings and turning away students, he says. “We believe when this all shakes out, total enrollment will drop by about 250,000 students,” or 8.6 percent, by the 2010–2011 academic year, Lay says.

High-school vocational education programs have long offered the potential for non-college-bound students to learn the fundamentals of a marketable trade or craft, and then move directly into the job market or on to further training at a community college, technical school or even a four-year institution. Yet for decades “vo-ed” programs — typically wood shop or auto repair — carried a stigma, often unfairly, as a dumping ground for low achievers. In recent years, however, many vocational education programs have been transformed into progressive “career and technical education” (CTE) programs that integrate core academic training in math, reading and other essentials into job-specific courses like computer programming, medical technology, restaurant and hotel management and construction.

“Historically, there's been a real divide between the academic and vocational side,” says Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center in New York, a national nonprofit group that focuses on making education and workforce development more responsive to the economy. But, he adds, “we're seeing much more melding” of academic and technical training in career and technical programs.

The Issues:
* Is a four-year college degree necessary for financial security?
* Are high-school career and technical-education programs adequately preparing students for upward mobility?
* Can community colleges meet rising demand for their programs?

[1] Mike Rowe, “Work Is Not the Enemy.”
[2] “Remarks of President Barack Obama, Address to Joint Session of Congress,” The White House, Feb. 24, 2009.
[3] “A Stronger Nation through Higher Education,” Lumina Foundation for Education, February 2009. The Lumina Foundation said its data source is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Education at a Glance 2008.”
[4] “Remarks of President Barack Obama,” op. cit. For background, see Scott W. Wright, “Community Colleges,” CQ Researcher, April 21, 2000, pp. 329–352.
[5] U.S. Census Bureau.
[6] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oct. 2, 2009.
[7] “Trends in College Pricing 2009,” College Board.
[8] Harry J. Holzer and Robert Lerman, “America's Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs,” Workforce Alliance, November 2007. Holzer and Lerman are both scholars at the Urban Institute.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Louis Uchitelle, “Despite Recession, High Demand for Skilled Labor,” The New York Times, June 24, 2009.
[11] For background on jobs and the economy, see the following CQ Researcher reports: Alan Greenblatt, “State Budget Crisis,” Sept. 11, 2009, pp. 741–764; Peter Katel, “Vanishing Jobs,” March 13, 2009, pp. 225–248; Marcia Clemmitt, “Public-Works Projects,” Feb. 20, 2009, pp. 153–176; Kenneth Jost, et al., “The Obama Presidency,” Jan. 30, 2009, pp. 73–104; Peter Katel, “Straining the Safety Net,” July 31, 2009, pp. 645–668.
[12] Tamar Lewin, “College Enrollment Set Record in 2008,” The New York Times, Oct. 30, 2009.

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "The Value of a College Education" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF

Should combat roles be fully opened to women?

Below is an excerpt from this week's CQ Researcher on "Women in the Military" by Marcia Clemmitt, November 13, 2009

More than 90 percent of armed-services jobs are open to women. The largest remaining all-male job category is ground-combat units — infantry troops that directly seek out and engage the enemy in fire.

In interviews with military officers and analysts, “we were told repeatedly that, if relevant and realistic tests existed so that only qualified women (and men) were assigned to these positions, gender integration would not be an issue,” said analysts from the RAND Corporation think tank in an influential 1997 analysis. [Footnote 15]

“Women are already engaged in combat” because under today's conditions, “combat is everywhere,” says Martin of Bryn Mawr. So the old distinctions between front-line positions that are barred to women versus more secure rear areas — where women are allowed — are no longer relevant and should be scrapped, he says.

“Units comprised of women and men have bonded … and maintained good order for centuries — or did they have separate-sex wagon trains pioneering the West?” wrote blogger and retired Air Force Capt. Barbara A. Wilson. “I have known some pretty weak men who wouldn't protect the back of their own mother in a crisis or combat situation and some strong women who would go to the wall for a total stranger in the trenches — and vice versa.” [Footnote 16]

Arguments against women in combat sometimes rest on “the military's mission to make professional killers” of its combat soldiers and women's supposed unsuitability for that role, says Iskra of the University of Maryland. But, in fact, “everybody recognizes that women can kill,” she says. “It's just not the cultural norm,” so it's easy to ignore.

Furthermore, there's now proof that “women in the combat area tend to defuse explosive situations just by their presence,” says Iskra. The evidence comes from the Lioness groups of women soldiers who accompany male Army and Marine Corps units on counterinsurgency missions, she says. With the women there, gaining control of explosive situations in hostile territory becomes mainly a matter of separating women and children out and “talking rather than shooting,” she says. “Imagine if somebody broke into your home. Of course the Iraqi men are shouting, panicking.” But “with the women there they know that their wives won't be raped,” and that confidence helps defuse the danger, she says.

Nevertheless, “the type of ground combat that involves directly attacking the enemy, actively rooting out enemy forces — not simply being in harm's way,” still exists, and there's no guarantee such aggressive missions won't be needed in the future, says Donnelly.

That being the case, “the strongest argument and the one that research backs up is that female soldiers do not have an equal opportunity to survive or help others survive” in situations requiring them to “go out and seek out the enemy,” Donnelly says. “Nobody questions the bravery of our women soldiers,” she continues, but “it's not fair to the women and not fair to the men” to put women in jobs serving directly with ground-combat troops because most women can't carry out required duties, such as carrying a wounded soldier from the front.

In combat areas toilet and washing facilities are rudimentary at best and, often, nonexistent, and some studies have found that, for women soldiers, “unmet basic hygiene needs affect morale” and their ability to cope in combat circumstances, says Browne of Wayne State. In such situations, some women “retained urine and stool and limited their water intake to reduce the number of times they would have to go to the bathroom,” which both increased their risk of urinary-tract infections and dehydration and decreased their ability to work at top efficiency. [Footnote 17]

Though the military is not willing to discuss the topic, sexual attraction would be inevitable in a mixed-gender combat unit and would quickly damage the required atmosphere of life-or-death trust, says a former infantry officer and West Point graduate who did three tours of duty in Iraq, including as a ground-combat officer in the August 2004 battle to control the city of Najaf in southern Iraq.

Women served in one supply company for his unit, and “when you'd go back there, you'd start looking at those girls and thinking, ‘My goodness,’” says the officer. If the women had served alongside the men in combat, “you would be distracted. A woman there would just get prettier and prettier every day,” he says. “I wouldn't do anything inappropriate, but I would worry because I know there'd be guys in my platoon who would act on their feelings, whether the woman wanted them to or not” — an extra concern for an officer already bearing the burden of leading troops in battle.

[15] Margaret C. Harrell and Laura L. Miller, “New Opportunities for Military Women; Effects Upon Readiness, Cohesion, Morale,” RAND, 1997, p. xvii.
[16] Barbara W. Wilson, “Women in Combat: Why Not,” Military Women Veterans blog.
[17] Kingsley Browne, Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence that Women Shouldn't Fight the Nation's Wars (2007), p.259


For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Women in the Military" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF

CQ Global Researcher Video

A brief demonstration video of the CQ Global Researcher has been posted on the CQ Press Facebook page. This video gives a short introduction to the CQ Global Researcher, the sister publication of CQ Press's acclaimed CQ Researcher. Global Researcher offers balanced, objective coverage of newsworthy global affairs in the same easy-to-read CQ Researcher format.

An excerpt from this month's CQ Global Researcher on Terrorist Websites can be found here on the blog.

Should governments block terrorist Web sites?

Below is an excerpt from the CQ Global Researcher issue on "Terroism and the Internet" by Barbara Mantel, November, 2009

Many of those who think the Internet is a major terrorist recruiting tool say authorities should simply shut down terrorists' sites.

Often the call comes from politicians. “It is shocking the government has failed to shut down a single Web site, even though Parliament gave them that power,” Britain's opposition security minister, Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, said last March. “This smacks of dangerous complacency and incompetence.” [Footnote 16]

In France, a minister for security said she wanted to stop terrorist propaganda on the Internet. [Footnote 17] And a European Commission official called for a Europe-wide prohibition on Web sites that post bomb-making instructions. [Footnote 18]

Although governments have shut down terrorist Web sites when they felt the information posted was too great a threat, some critics say such a move is legally complicated, logistically difficult and unwise.

Last year, three of the most important discussion forums used by Islamist terrorist groups disappeared from the Internet, including, which had posted the six-part training manual. Jordanian terrorism expert Bakier says counterterrorism officials were so worried about the site that he “used to get requests from concerned agencies to translate the exact texts posted on that were referenced in my articles. It was that serious.”

“It is widely assumed that Western intelligence agencies were responsible for removing the three sites,” and probably without the cooperation of the Internet service providers (ISPs) that host the sites, says Neumann, of King's College. “It would have required the cooperation of all the ISPs in the world,” because those Web sites were not accessible at all, he explains. Instead, he thinks intelligence agencies may have launched so-called denial-of-service attacks against the sites, bombarding them with so many requests that they crashed. This September, one of the sites resurfaced; however, many experts believe it is a hoax. [Footnote 19]

But government takedowns of terrorist sites — by whatever method — are not common, say many researchers. First, there are concerns about free speech.

“Who is going to decide who is a terrorist, who should be silenced and why?” asks Haifa University's Weimann. “Who is going to decide what kind of Web site should be removed? It can lead to political censorship.”

Concern about free speech may be more acute in the United States than elsewhere. Current U.S. statutes make it a crime to provide “material support” — including expert advice or assistance — to organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department. [Footnote 20] However, the First Amendment guarantee of free speech may trump the material support provisions.

“Exceptions to the First Amendment are fairly narrow” says Ian Ballon, an expert on Internet law practicing in California. “Child pornography is one, libelous or defamatory content another. There is no terrorism exception per se.” Words that would incite violence are clearly an exception to the First Amendment, he says, “but there is a concept of immediacy, and most terrorism sites would not necessarily meet that requirement.” A 1969 Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, held that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is inciting or likely to incite imminent lawless action. [Footnote 21]

In Europe, where free-speech rights are more circumscribed than in the United States, the legal landscape varies. Spain, for instance, outlaws as incitement “the act of performing public ennoblement, praise and/or justification of a terrorist group, operative or act,” explains Raphael Perl, head of the Action Against Terrorism Unit at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security organization with 56 member nations, based in Vienna, Austria. And the U.K. passed the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006, which make it an offense to collect, make or possess material that could be used in a terrorist act, such as bomb-making manuals and information about potential targets. The 2006 act also outlaws the encouragement or glorification of terrorism.Footnote 22 Human Rights Watch says the measure is unnecessary, overly broad and potentially chilling of free speech. [Footnote 23]

Yet, it does not appear that governments are using their legal powers to shut down Web sites. “I haven't heard from any ISP in Europe so far that they have been asked by the police to take down terrorist pages,” says Michael Rotert, vice president of the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA).

For one thing, says Rotert, there is no common, legal, Europe-wide definition of terrorism. “We are requesting a common definition,” he says, “and then I think notice and takedown procedures could be discussed. But right now, such procedures only exist for child pornography.”

But even if a European consensus existed on what constitutes terrorism, the Internet has no borders. If an ISP shuts down a site, it can migrate to another hosting service and even register under a new domain name.

Instead of shutting down sites, some governments are considering filtering them. Germany recently passed a filtering law aimed at blocking child pornography, which it says could be expanded to block sites that promote terrorist acts. And Australia is testing a filtering system for both child pornography and material that advocates terrorism.

The outcry in both countries, however, has been tremendous, both on technical grounds — filtering can slow down Internet speed — and civil liberties grounds. “Other countries using similar systems to monitor Internet traffic have blacklisted political critics,” wrote an Australian newspaper columnist. “Is this really the direction we want our country to be heading? Communist China anyone? Burma? How about North Korea?” [Footnote 24]

Ultimately, filtering just may not be that effective. Determined Internet users can easily circumvent a national filter and access banned material that is legal elsewhere. And filtering cannot capture the dynamic parts of the Internet: the chat rooms, video sharing sites and blogs, for instance.

Even some governments with established filtering laws seem reluctant to remove terrorist sites. The government owns Singapore's Internet providers and screens all Web sites for content viewed as “‘objectionable’ or a potential threat to national security.” [Footnote 25] Yet Osman, of the Nanyang Technological University, says the government is not blocking Web sites that support terrorism. “I can still get access to many of them,” she says, “so a lot of other people can, too.”

In fact, counterterrorism officials around the world often prefer to monitor and infiltrate blogs, chat rooms, discussion forums and other Web sites where terrorists and sympathizers converse. If the sites remain active, they can be mined for intelligence.

“One reason [for not shutting down sites] is to take the temperature, to see whether the level of conversation is going up or down in terms of triggering an alert among security agencies,” says Anthony Bergin, director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Another purpose is to disrupt terrorist attacks, says Bergin. Just recently, the violent postings of Texas resident Hosan Maher Husein Smadi to an extremist chat room attracted the attention of the FBI, which was monitoring the site. Agents set up a sting operation and arrested the 19-year-old Jordanian in late September after he allegedly tried to detonate what he thought was a bomb, provided by an undercover agent, in the parking garage beneath a Dallas skyscraper. [Footnote 26]


[16] Clodagh Hartley, “Govt Can't Stop ‘Web of Terror,’” The Sun (England), March 20, 2009, p. 2.

[17] “Interview given by Mme. Michèle Alliot-Marie, French Minister of the Interior, to Le Figaro,” French Embassy, Feb 1, 2008.

[18] Greg Goth, “Terror on the Internet: A Complex Issue, and Getting Harder,” IEEE Computer Society, March 2008.

[19] Howard Altman, “Al Qaeda's Web Revival,” The Daily Beast, Oct. 2, 2009.

[20] Gregory McNeal, “Cyber Embargo: Countering the Internet Jihad,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, vol. 39, no. 3, 2007–08, p. 792.

[21] Brandenburg v. Ohio.

[22] “Safeguarding Online: Explaining the Risk Posed by Violent Extremism,” op. cit., p. 3.

[23] Elizabeth Renieris, “Combating Incitement to Terrorism on the Internet: Comparative Approaches in the United States and the United Kingdom and the Need for an International Solution,” Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, vol. 11:3:673, 2009, pp. 687–688.

[24] Fergus Watts, “Caught out by net plan,” Herald Sun (Australia), Dec. 29, 2008, p. 20.

[25] Weimann, op. cit., p. 180.

[26] “Jordanian accused in Dallas bomb plot goes to court,” CNN, Sept. 25, 2009.


For more information see the CQ Global Researcher report on "Terrorism and the Internet" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Global Researcher PDF

Should advertisers' collection of data on Web users be regulated?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Online Privacy" by Patrick Marshall, November 6, 2009

Advertisers — working with ISPs, search engine providers and individual Web sites — are turning to ever more powerful tools to gather information about users so that they can more accurately target their ads. There are, however, very few checks on what advertisers and service providers can do with the data.

“Users have little idea how much information is gathered, who has access to it or how it is used,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told Congress last spring. [Footnote 10] “This last point is critical because in the absence of legal rules, companies that are gathering this data will be free to use it for whatever purpose they wish — the data for a targeted ad today could become a detailed personal profile sold to a prospective employer or a government agency tomorrow.”

In fact, in most cases the only constraints on service providers in their collection and use of personal data are their own privacy policy statements. According to Peder Magee, senior staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, if a company's practices violate its published promises, “that would be a deceptive claim and something we could take some action against.”

Privacy advocates warn, however, that some service providers don't offer promises about privacy at all. “As long as you don't actually promise anybody any privacy — and companies have gotten very good at writing privacy policies that contain all kinds of warm, ringing tones about how they care for your privacy without actually making any legal commitments — then they don't have to deliver any,” says Stanley at the American Civil Liberties Union.

As Stanley notes, even sites and service providers that do offer privacy statements generally do so in the form of rarely read, long and difficult-to-understand documents buried under an obscure link on a Web site. As a result, many if not most users are unaware of the extent of data being gathered about them and the uses to which it may be put.

With or without their knowledge, “people are giving information to a Web site in order for that site to provide them with a service,” says Stanley. “They don't expect that Web site will then turn around and share the information with six other sites, combine the information to create a profile and give it to an advertiser who will decide whether you're rich or poor and give you different opportunities as a result.”

Most users are also unaware that their Internet searches are recorded and can be used for profiling. “Internet search records are very, very intrusive records,” says Stanley. “The things that you do searches for indicate your hopes and fears, what you're thinking about, what you may be reading, diseases that you have and diseases you fear you might have, things you believe about other people.”

Advertisers justify collection of user data on two grounds. First, they argue that advertising is critical to keeping the Web vibrant. “The great majority of … Web sites and services are currently provided to consumers free of charge,” Charles Curran, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group, told a congressional hearing last June. [Footnote 11] “Instead of requiring visitors to register and pay a subscription fee, the operators of Web content and services subsidize their offerings with various types of advertising. These advertising revenues provide the creators of free Web content and services — site publishers, bloggers and software developers — with the income they need to pay their staffs and build and expand their online offerings.”

Second, advertisers argue the collection of user data helps advertisers better serve consumers. “Targeted advertising is extraordinarily important for everybody,” says Dan Jaffe, vice president of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. That, he says, is because the more information advertisers have about users the fewer irrelevant ads will be delivered to those users.

Conversely, Jaffe says, restrictions on behavioral targeting won't cut down on advertising. “A lot of people seem to think that if they can stop behavioral advertising that they will somehow stop advertising,” he says. “Quite the contrary. Instead, you'll see an explosion of untargeted ads. You'll essentially increase the amount of spam because spam is, in effect, untargeted advertising.”

Rather than legislated restrictions on advertising practices, the advertising industry argues that self-regulation — including full disclosure through clear privacy statements and procedures for users to opt out of selected data-collection programs — should be sufficient to protect users' privacy interests.

Berin Szoka, director of the Center for Internet Freedom, a project of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a “market-oriented” think tank in Washington, agrees. “I think industry can do this on its own,” says Szoka. “We should want companies to really make disclosures robust so that people really understand what they're doing.” Then, he says, leave it up to the Federal Trade Commission to deal with companies that violate their privacy agreements. “They should be going out and finding the truly bad actors in industry and bringing enforcement actions against them,” Szoka urges. “If they need more resources, we can talk about that.”

Szoka adds that user education is another important part of the solution. “What we should be doing here is trying to educate users about what is going on online and empowering them to make decisions for themselves,” he says. “If you really are very concerned about your privacy online, you have a very simple tool. You can go into your browser and use the basic cookie controls to opt out of browsing altogether, or site by site. You can create your own white lists or black lists. I would like to see those tools become much more powerful.”

Privacy advocates, however, are very skeptical of self-regulation. “While we remain hopeful that advertising models based on non-personally identifiable information can be made, there are still too many instances where companies, particularly where there is no regulation, fail to fulfill their responsibilities,” Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) told lawmakers last spring.

“Second, even if these privacy techniques are shown to be reliable, it will still be necessary to enact legislation to place the burden on the advertising company to prevent the reconstruction of user identity,” he added. “Without this statutory obligation, there would be no practical consequence if a company inadvertently disclosed personal information or simply changed its business model to true user-based profiling.”

[10] Statement of Marc Rotenberg, executive director, EPIC, and adjunct professor, Georgetown University Law Center, before House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, April 24, 2009.

[11] Statement of Charles Curran, executive director, Network Advertising Initiative, before House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection and Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, June 18, 2009.


The Issues:
* Do Americans need better protection?
* Are social networking sites doing enough to protect users' privacy?
* Do federal privacy policies regarding the Internet need to be updated?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Online Privacy" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF