Yesterday the Feds, through the Federal Trade Commission, came out in support of a request by several NGOs to create a “Do Not Track” registry, similar to the current “Do Not Call” and “Do Not Send Junk Mail” registries, only in this case the tracking referred to in “Do Not Track” is the online tracking of Internet users across the web, tracking the websites they visit with cookies and other tracking technologies, in much the way that Facebook and their partners are currently tracking people. Among other things, this tracking allows them to have their ads follow you around the web in a practice known as ‘remarketing’ or ‘re-marketing’.
[See here for an explanation of remarketing.]
The “Do Not Track” technology would most likely be browser-based, meaning that your own browser would communicate to each website you visit that you are not to be tracked. On one hand this makes sense, as trying to do it by registering your IP address in the same way that you register a telephone number for “Do Not Call” or a home address for “Do Not Send Junk Mail”, would not work as most consumers to not surf the web from just a single IP address, or, even, a single location.
However, how a consumer would ever know that a visited site was or was not honouring the “Do Not Track” message, absent a flagrant or even egregious violation, is unclear.
The other obstacle is that not everybody loves the idea, most notably marketers, and those sites already tracking visitors.
One of the most vocal, the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) argues that the industry is self-policing, and besides, consumers can opt-out of advertising using the very cookie technology currently used to track them. This, of course, ignores that this isn’t the whole point (or, for many, the point at all) – it isn’t just that consumers don’t want ads that are targeted at them based on where they have been previously – but they don’t want to be tracked at all. For many, it’s a privacy issue.
Too, says FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, “Self-regulation in privacy has not worked adequately,” adding that “A legislative solution will surely be needed if industry doesn’t step up to the plate.”
Not so, says Trevor Hughes, Executive Director of and spokesman for the NAI. “We think this proposal is redundant and overwrought,” said Hughes.
Of course, NAI represents big online advertising interests who want to be able to track your every move, so that they can advertise to you based on the interests you’ve shown through the websites you’ve visited. Ever notice how once you visit a travel site, you start seeing ads for travel agencies and cruises everywhere, even on non travel-related sites? Or, visited a company website and suddenly you see ads for them everywhere online?
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That’s because by tracking your moves, those companies pay to have their ads follow you around the internet. This is known as “remarketing”.
As Google (who offers remarketing to their advertisers who use Google’s “Ads by Goooooogle” service, Adsense) explains, “Remarketing allows you to show ads to users who’ve previously visited your website as they browse the Web.”
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Big advertising may not like the idea of consumers being able to opt-out of such tracking, but hey, just think: what if consumers had to opt-in to being tracked?
Here is the FTC’s full statement on the “Do Not Track” proposal:
FTC Testifies on Do Not Track Legislation
Proposes Browser Setting So Consumers Can Make Choices About Online Tracking
The Federal Trade Commission told Congress today that while the Commission recognizes that consumers may benefit in certain ways from the practice of tracking consumers online to serve targeted advertising, the agency supports giving consumers a “Do Not Track” option because the practice is largely invisible to consumers, and they should have a simple, easy way to control it. The FTC proposes that Do Not Track would be a persistent setting on consumers’ Web browsers.
David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection that the practice of tracking consumers’ activities online to target advertising, known as behavioral advertising, holds value for consumers because it supports content and services on the Web and delivers more personalized ads. He noted, however, that more transparency and consumer control regarding the practice are needed.
The testimony describes the FTC’s efforts to protect consumer privacy for 40 years through law enforcement, education, and policy initiatives. It also provides highlights from the FTC staff’s new report on consumer privacy, released yesterday, and proposes a framework to promote privacy, transparency, business innovation, and consumer choice.
The testimony states that while some in the industry have taken steps to improve consumer control of behavioral advertising, industry efforts have largely fallen short. Given the limitations of existing mechanisms, “the Commission supports a more uniform and comprehensive consumer choice mechanism for online behavioral advertising,” sometimes referred to as “Do Not Track.”
The most practical way to do that “would likely involve placing a setting similar to a persistent cookie on a consumer’s browser, and conveying that setting to sites that the browser visits, to signal whether or not the consumer wants to be tracked or receive targeted advertisements,” according to the testimony.
The testimony states that such a mechanism could be accomplished through legislation or potentially through robust, enforceable self-regulation. “If Congress chooses to enact legislation, the Commission urges Congress to consider several issues,” including:
* It should not undermine the benefits online behavioral advertising provides consumers, including funding content and services;
* Unlike the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry for telemarketers, it should not require a registry of unique identifiers; rather, the Commission recommends a browser-based mechanism;
* It should consider an option that lets consumers choose to opt out completely or to choose certain types of advertising they wish to receive or data they are willing to have collected about them;
* The mechanism should be simple, and easy to find and use;
* The FTC should be given Administrative Procedures Act rulemaking and the ability to fine violators to “provide a strong incentive for companies to comply with any legal requirements, helping to deter future violations.”
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