Earlier this month the Federal Trade Commission formally announced a new world order that would provide more privacy options for Internet users.
The cornerstone of that proposal is a universal “Do Not Track” mechanism that would allow web consumers to block access to online marketers. The proposal is viewed by privacy groups as similar to the FTC’s 2004’s “Do Not Call” registry, which gave consumers the option to block unwanted telemarketing calls to their homes.
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with my colleague Eduard Goodman, Chief Privacy Officer at Identity Theft 911, to discuss the impact, pro and con, from the proposed “Do Not Track” list.
So, what’s the concept here?
Conceptually, it is very similar to the “Do Not Call” list. Consumers could be given the option to not have their online behavior tracked for marketing purposes. If it goes through, “Do Not Track” would likely block things like banner ads, pop-up ads – basically any online advertising mechanism that could track your browsing behavior and use it for marketing purposes. Limiting cookies, “history sniffing” programs and the like. It might also lead to consumers blocking ads on social networking applications like Facebook.
What about the practical side?
The key question from a practical point of view is this: how do you accomplish a “Do Not Track” program? With the “Do Not Phone” list, it was pretty cut and dried – consumers simply registered their phone numbers on a list. But on the Internet, all bets are off. How will you block online marketers? By IP addresses? That doesn’t seem very practical.
What does the FTC have to say about the “implementation” issue?
Right now, the FTC is suggesting, for lack of a better word, a browser “plug in” on big Internet modules like Firefox, Safari or Explorer. Under that implementation, individual users would set the rules, allowing them to shape what they want and to whom they want to talk online. I don’t think the FTC views it as an “all or nothing” proposition – it just wants to give more privacy options to web consumers. But that said, it’s surprising that the FTC has been working at this policy for at least a year, yet there’s still a real lack of clarity.
What are the big guys saying about the proposal?
There are still comments coming in, but in one of the roundtables I checked into, a Google executive made a valid point. He said that, in all of the studies he’d seen, there already were mechanisms in place that enabled consumers to customize their online advertising experiences. That’s actually true. On Firefox, for instance, there’s a simple “two-click” process to clear your privacy settings. It’s very easily accomplished. There have been plenty of good comments looking to the FTC to clarify what they’re doing.
What’s driving the “Do Not Track” initiative?
The FTC, mostly. It’s ironic, but consumers are largely unaware that all of this “Do Not Track” chatter is going on. It’s the FTC that’s saying “we want transparency” and “we want choice.” They’re telling the big online marketers, “ You need to start living in a fishbowl and show us what you’re doing.” That’s a big point. Nobody, even the U.S. government, knows exactly who is tracking online consumers and how they’re doing it. But that makes the FTC’s case even stronger in its mind – it goes against the core privacy principles that the FTC lives by – consent and choice. But you have to give the FTC its due – they’ve been following this issue on the enforcement side for a decade now and do know what’s going on.