Election Results Could Breathe New Life Into Do-Not-Track Agenda

The Federal Trade Commission will be led by a Democrat. The Commerce Department will continue its efforts to forge a consensus on privacy codes of conduct. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) will push legislation mandating a do-not-track option for Web users.

Those are some of the likely consequences of yesterday's elections, which ended in victory for President Barack Obama, and also continued Democratic control of the Senate. The GOP held the House, but it's worth noting that Republican Mary Bono Mack -- a vocal critic of the Obama administration's proposed privacy bill of rights -- appears to have lost her seat.

While the administration's policy agenda probably won't change on paper, the election could still breathe new life into initiatives like do-not-track. That effort has been stalled since the summer, when industry representatives and privacy advocates were unable to agree on how ad networks should respond to a do-not-track signal.

The online ad industry generally says that companies should stop targeting ads based on Web-surfing history when people turn on do-not-track, but should still be able to collect analytics information. Privacy advocates, as well as many consumers, say ad networks should stop gathering data about people's Web surfing activity if they have turned on do-not-track.

But the FTC very much wants to see the industry find a way to move forward on do-not-track -- and that sentiment won't weaken now that the election is over. If Chairman Jon Leibowitz steps down in the next few months -- as many observers think he will -- Obama's victory means that another Democrat will likely take Leibowitz's place. The two obvious contenders are Julie Brill and Edith Ramirez, both of whom support the idea that consumers should be able to opt out of online tracking.

In fact, Brill has said she believes that ad networks should stop collecting data when people activate a do-not-track mechanism. At the same time, she's made it clear that she wants to hear why ad networks believe they need to continue gathering information from people who say they want to opt out of tracking. Given the election's outcome, ad networks might want to think about how they're going to respond to Brill's invitation.

Tags: ftc, privacy, tracking
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