The Limits of Opt-in

Federal and state laws guarantee individuals the right to “opt-out” of certain uses of their personal information. Under this longstanding standard of privacy protection, businesses that wish to collect and use personal information must clearly notify consumers and must provide them with an easy, no-cost way (such as an 800-number) of “opting out” of such use.

This standard of privacy protection is so widespread and so universally accepted that many companies and industry associations permit consumers to “opt-out” of certain uses of personal information, even where they are not legally required to. Since 1971, for example, every U.S. resident has been able to “opt-out” of receiving mail and telephone solicitations from Direct Marketing Association member companies; a single letter to the DMA’s Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service is all it takes.

Some legislators, however, are considering highly restrictive laws that would prohibit the use of basic personal information, such as name, address, and past purchasing habits, unless the individual to whom the information pertains “opts-in” to the use by giving explicit consent. This radical departure from the “opt-out” privacy standard offers consumers no additional privacy protection, but instead saddles them with higher costs, a decreased range of products and service, and the inconvenience and burden of the additional calls and letters necessary to obtain the permission every time personal information must be used to provide the convenient services that we have all come to take for granted. Consider the following:


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