FTC Looks Into Do-Not-Track Option

Author:
Publish date:

Washington -- Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon
Leibowitz said his agency is looking into a browser-level way for consumers to
opt out of behavioral advertising.

That came at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on online
privacy Tuesday. He said that rather than having to make that decision website
by website, a "do-not-track" option could be overseen by the FTC or the private
sector.

Leibowitz said that his guess was that most people want some
ads targeted to their personal preferences and so would not choose a universal
opt-out for tracking, but he suggested that such an opt-out would be one way to
make it easier for consumers to control tracking information.

That recommendation could be part of a report the FTC is
planning to release this fall.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he wanted to be kept abreast
of the do-not-track option consideration.

Leibowitz also said other FTC recommendations would likely
include getting businesses to "bake in" best practices for information
protection and data-sharing notice and consent, and ways to make information
consent-sharing policies clearer and available at the point of decision, rather
than several clicks away and buried in fine print.

Leibowitz said that in most circumstances, opt-in privacy
policies were best, but always when a policy is being changed or when the
information is sensitive material like social security numbers, medical info or
bank records.

He said that given the FTC's limited rule-making authority
and lack of authority to levy civil fines, the commission would continue to
work with industry -- perhaps prodding business more than it would like -- and
that he was hoping the private sector would "buy in" to his recommendations.

Commerce Committee Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) made it clear from
the outset of the hearing that he wanted to look out for the average consumer,
not "a savvy computer whiz kid" or "a lawyer who reads legalese for a living
and can delve into the fine print of what privacy protections he or she is
getting."

Both Rockefeller and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who
co-chaired the hearing, related it directly to targeted marketing, painting
pictures of consumers' buying habits being tracked without their knowledge or
consent to build behavioral profiles.

"Imagine this scenario," said Rockefeller. "[Y]ou're in a
shopping mall. And while you're there, there's a machine recording every store
you enter and every product you look at, and every product you buy. You go into
a bookstore. The machine records every book you purchase or peruse. Then, you
go to the drug store. The machine is watching you there, meticulously recording
every product you pick up -- from the shampoo to the allergy medicine to your
personal prescription.

"The machine records your every move that day. Then, based
on what you look at, where you shop, what you buy -- it builds a personality
profile on you. It predicts what you may want in the future -- and starts
sending you coupons. Further, it tells businesses what a good potential client
you may be -- and shares your personality profile with them."

Rockefeller said that scenario is playing out "every second
of every day."

The goal of the hearing was to figure out what consumers do
and don't know about how they are being tracked online, what benefit they may
get out of it and what they can do to stop it if they don't want to be tracked.

Dorgan, who held hearings several years ago during the flap
over Nebuad's deep-packet inspection technique for providing what it said was
anonymized information about Web surfers, asked Leibowitz what had been learned
since then.

Leibowitz said that one thing he learned was that there was
a "fair amount of corporate responsibility." He said companies were pretty
quick to back off the technique.

He
also cited the emergence of a coalition of more than 100 companies with "big Internet
presences" who were trying to come up with an easy way to opt out of targeted
advertising.

Related