08/03/2011 11:41 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2011

People Always Have the Right to Opt Out

Americans receive nearly 90 billion pieces of advertising mail every year, equaling 10 billion pounds of solid waste (not to mention countless privacy concerns).

With thousands of companies offering to share their mailing lists, that adds up to an information super highway where individuals are quickly losing control. Consumers, companies and the government have all taken notice.

Only 25% of consumers, according to a recent Catalog Choice survey, expect to receive email or direct mail marketing after making a purchase online. Only 10% expect their information to be shared with another company. When consumers become the target of unwanted marketing, they often want to opt out of both direct mail and name trading. This right is set forth in almost every marketer's privacy policy. This is similar to the rights that consumers have to opt-out of commercial email as set for by the CAN-SPAM legislation or opt-out of unsolicited phone calls as set forth by the Do Not Call legislation.

Most companies provide notice and choice through an online "privacy policy." But just because you see this link at the bottom of a website does not mean a company respects your right to privacy and choice. It depends on how you define "respect." Can a company respect your right to privacy and choice if they require you to submit an opt-out request by mail on a 3x5 index card? Can they respect your right to privacy and choice if they require you to call in and wait on hold for 20 minutes? Can they respect your right to privacy and choice if you require them to read a long and confusing privacy policy to learn how to opt-out instead of allowing them to use an easy-to-use platform?

Respecting privacy and choice means more than making it just possible to opt out. It means making opting out reasonably easy, such that a consumer could make and manage choices for all the mail they receive. A few companies disagree. In order to avoid opt-outs, they adopt a position of "anti-innovation." More convenience, ease, and simplicity equals more opt-outs. So convenience, ease, and simplicity are opposed. What does this say about their commitment to your right to privacy and choice?

Resisting innovation, particularly online innovation, is becoming increasing difficult. With the explosion of online advertising and tracking, privacy and choice have been catapulted to the forefront. Congress and the FTC are actively engaged, shaping how these practices will evolve. In February of this year, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced the "Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011." In April, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the "Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011." In May, two bills were introduced. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced the "Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011." Representatives Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) introduced a draft of the "Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011." Each of these proposed bills, in one way or another, seek to regulate how and to what extent companies can track consumers and use their personal information.

As companies and the government work to address privacy controls, it is critical that consumers, the very group to be protected, not only observe what is happening, but participate in it. Through organizations like Catalog Choice, consumers can communicate with thousands of companies about how they want their information used -- if they want it used at all. The companies should listen -- consumers are interested in doing business with companies that honor choice and protect their privacy. Through this type of civic participation, with company compliance, self-regulation may emerge as a viable alternative to government intervention.

Chuck Teller is the Executive Director of Catalog Choice.