Federal Trade Commission Building
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed a “Do Not Track” list that Internet users can elect to be placed on, similar to the landmark 2004 “Do Not Call” registry. The move calls for a list maintained by the FTC or private entity that prevents web marketers and third-parties from collecting Internet user information. However, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has said he would prefer Web browser makers to include their own “opt-out” setting: “Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and Apple have already experimented with this. We’re going to give these companies a little more time, but we would like to see them work a lot faster and make consumer choice a lot easier.”
The 122-page online privacy report, released by the FTC in December 2010, stops short of proposing any specific legislation, instead offering ”best practices” for Internet and marketing companies.
The FTC is hoping that a proposed “Do Not Track” list would be as popular as the “Do Not Call” list, but its implementation would be exponentially more difficult. Some argue that imposing an anti-tracking mechanism would make free content online more or less extinct; the quality of pages with no tracking mechanism might also be less content-rich. Others maintain that such a measure would make webpage ads less relevant to users and virtually eliminate the benefits of targeted advertising. Additionally, marketers track users’ IP addresses, specific actions on sites, etc. — which one of these would be prohibited by the law, exactly?
Senator John McCain
Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate strongly support online privacy legislation. In February, Representative Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced the “Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011″ that would develop standards for Web browsers. And Senators John McCain (D-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a comprehensive privacy bill earlier this month, called the The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011, that would require companies to notify consumers when their data is being collected–and allow them to opt out. The Act would be enforced by the FTC and State Attorneys General. Another bipartisan bill, The Consumer Privacy Protection Act of 2011, introduced by Representatives Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and Jim Matheson (D-UT), also gives the FTC the authority to enforce privacy rules–but would be more federal in scope.
Hopping on the Bandwagon
Many Web browser makers have already jumped on the “Do Not Track” bandwagon. Apple’s next version of Safari, which comes out with the next version of its operating system, will have a “Do Not Track” setting. Firefox and Internet Explorer have also included such a feature in their newest versions. But Google’s Chrome browser isn’t supporting the feature, citing that the definition of “tracking” is still murky at best, and that, as such, there isn’t a foolproof, comprehensive response ready. Chrome does, however, offer a plug-in called “Keep My Opt-Outs,” which prevents users from deleting “opt-out” cookies from ad networks when they delete their cookies wholesale.
There’s no doubt that the proposed measures may hurt the advertising industry. It remains to be seen whether the marketing and Internet industries will combine to make a robust anti-tracking mechanism available to consumers; until then, the significant amount of legislation already in Congress might beat them to it.