The Obama Administration and the Federal Trade Commission recently issued privacy reports that called for baseline protections giving consumers more control over their data. The FTC also specifically called on Web companies to offer a do-not-track tool that will enable consumers to easily opt out of all online behavioral advertising.
Those proposals don't seem to be sitting well with all Republicans, judging from comments made at a hearing today.
"Given Washington’s addiction to regulation, I’m very concerned that the White House’s Privacy Bill of Rights could morph one day into another Big Government Rules of the Road," Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) said this morning at a hearing about online privacy.
She added that she was "leery that advancements like 'do not track'" will work as intended. "We should resist the urge to 'rush to judgment' because we feel a compelling need to do something – even if we’re not exactly sure what that should be."
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was "highly skeptical of Congress’ or a government regulator’s ability to keep up with the innovative and vibrant pace of the Internet without breaking it."
While it's not surprising to see GOP lawmakers advocating an anti-regulation stance, Bono Mack also expressed some surprising reservations about the FTC's proposal for a do-not-track tool. "Targeted ads are generally more valuable and the revenue derived therefrom supports an array of content," she declared shortly before asking FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz how Web companies would be able to continue to offer content and services while also honoring consumers' do-not-track requests.
That question was unexpected for several reasons. First, behavioral advertising is thought to account for only a small percentage of total online ad revenue web revenue. While the figure is expected to increase in the future, it's not at all clear how much content is currently supported by behavioral targeting.
Second, and more significantly, industry self-regulatory groups have said for more than a decade that consumers should be able to opt out of online behavioral targeting -- or receiving ads targeted based on Web-surfing history. In the past those opt-outs were cookie-based, which rendered them unstable; a browser-based header is a far more efficient way to opt out, if ad networks honor the header. In other words, the FTC isn't proposing a new principle with do-not-track, but a mechanism to enforce old principles.
For his part, Leibowitz pointed out that even with do-not-track, companies still will be able to send ads to consumers. He added that the idea that consumers should be able to opt out of online tracking is in line with the "deeply conservative" principle that people have the right to control what gets placed on their property -- in this case, their computers.