‘Do Not Track’ tool could enhance online privacy

The FTC has proposed a new online privacy tool that would prevent marketers from tracking web users' browser activity if they choose to 'opt out' from this action.

Federal regulators are proposing to create a “Do Not Track” tool for enhancing online privacy, so that people could prevent marketers from tracking their web browsing habits and other online behavior in order to deliver targeted advertising.

The proposal, inspired by the government’s existing “Do Not Call” registry for telemarketers, is one of a series of recommendations outlined in a privacy report released Dec. 1 by the Federal Trade Commission.

The report lays out a broad framework for protecting consumer privacy both online and offline as personal data collection becomes ubiquitous—often without consumer knowledge.

The FTC hopes its report will help guide the marketing industry as it develops self-regulatory principles to define acceptable corporate behavior and inform lawmakers and other policy makers as they draft new rules of the road to protect online privacy.

The FTC has limited authority to write those rules itself, so new regulations likely would require congressional action.

Protecting online privacy, the agency says, is critical as more marketers are analyzing the websites consumers visit, the online links they click, their internet searches, their online and offline purchases, the physical locations of cell phones and other wireless devices, and all sorts of personal information disclosed on social networking sites.

So far, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, the marketing industry has not done nearly enough to ensure that consumers understand what personal information is being collected about them or to give them adequate control over that data collection.

The agency envisions a Do Not Track tool as one important way to let consumers decline, or “opt out” of, much of the tracking that occurs online—a practice the industry calls behavioral, or targeted, advertising.

The tool most likely would take the form of a browser setting that would apply across the board as consumers jump from site to site. It would clearly inform sites when tracking and targeted advertising are off limits for a particular browser.

The concept is loosely based on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry, which was launched in 2003 and has been widely credited for allowing Americans to eat their suppers in peace. More than 190 million people have listed their phones on the registry, which prohibits calls from telemarketers. Violating the registry subjects telemarketers to civil penalties up to $16,000 per violation.

Leibowitz, who first floated the idea of Do Not Track last summer, said that although the technology has not yet been widely deployed for consumers, browser companies are experimenting with it. And lawmakers do appear interested in the concept.

Bobby Rush, chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee that deals with consumer protection issues, will hold a hearing on potential Do Not Track legislation on Dec. 2.

The new FTC report comes at time of mounting concern about online privacy in both Washington, D.C., and Europe.

The National Information and Telecommunications Administration, part of the U.S. Commerce Department, is also preparing a report on the issue.

And the Obama administration’s Office of Science Technology Policy has created a new group to develop broad principles on online privacy to guide legislative action and regulatory policy.

Meanwhile, last month the European Union said it plans to update its privacy regulations to give consumers more control over online tracking and targeted advertising.

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