Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The FTC Wants YOU
Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission announced it would hold a two-day Town Hall on Nov. 1-2 specifically on the privacy issues surrounding "behavioral advertising" at FTC headquarters in Washington D.C. The full announcement is here, and it outlines an agenda of questions that range from nuts and bolts about the technology behind behavioral targeting to anticipated changes in data-gathering techniques as the technologies evolve in coming years.
That the meeting extends to two days and that it is being held at the FTC offices indicates the seriousness with which the Commission is engaging BT -- specifically after last year's public hearing (Tech-Ade) and a round of letters from advocacy groups that singled out BT for scrutiny. We spoke with Jessica Rich, assistant director, division of privacy and identity protection at the FTC, who says there is "high-level interest at the FTC" on this topic, and they are actively soliciting information, agenda and panel suggestions and panelists for the day. The panels most likely will be shaped around the current agenda issues and questions, but the FTC is open to proposals for expanding or revising the issues it will address over the two days. If there are specific topics the current agenda does not address, the Commission wants to hear suggestions.
Companies should be looking to submit both proposed panelists as well as background information on the field. Understanding how tracking technologies work and are evolving is of particular interest to the FTC, as are any current efforts at self-regulation. Rich tells us the FTC would like to know what standards companies are using in data collection and privacy protection, as well as any evidence concerning what consumers themselves know about privacy practices.
A recent FTC letter to the Center for Digital Democracy and U.S. PIRG offers a bit more insight into the areas of Commission concern. The June 21 letter from Lydia B. Parnes responds to formal complaints both organizations had filed with the FTC about behavioral tracking practices. Parnes says that the November 2006 hearings raised issues the Commission felt should be explored publicly. "In particular, the staff believes that the FTC and the public would benefit from further discussion about: the relationship between the various industry segments engaged in different facets of online advertising; the status of industry self-regulation; the extent to which companies are collecting personally identifiable information vs. non-personally identifiable information online; industry measures to inform consumers about data collection and use in connection with online advertising; and consumer understanding of such practices."
In 2000, the FTC issued reports on online privacy, and the upcoming Town Hall is being called because so much of the technology and online behavior has changed since then. The original FTC recommendations to Congress can be found here.
The CDD director, Jeff Chester, whom we have interviewed in these pages, issued a terse statement criticizing the FTC's desire for another "industry talkfest" in place of immediate action. See the comments here. He elaborated in his blog: "It's clear that the FTC is fearful of really tackling the privacy and consumer-manipulation problems intrinsic to the online ad field. Behavioral targeting, which we also address in our complaint, is just the tip of the proverbial data collection and target marketing iceberg." U.S. PIRG consumer program director Ed Mierzwinski calls the announced meeting "tentative baby steps" on the part of the FTC in his blog.
Jessica Rich and the Commission members working on the Town Hall can be contacted directly at 202-326-2252.