Commentary

Will Do-Not-Track Become Law This Year?

The online industry is vocally opposing the Federal Trade Commission's recent proposal for a voluntary do-not-track mechanism, and some privacy experts seem convinced that the initiative will slowly, if at all.*

Consider, just this week the industry-funded think tank Future of Privacy Forum said that 86% of board members and other informal poll respondents believe that do-not-track will not be enshrined in law by the end of the year.

Whether that prediction will prove accurate is hard to say, but lawmakers aren't known for moving quickly. After all, enacting do-not-call took more than a decade, as Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg reminded people this morning at a digital privacy conference in New York. (Despite the similarity in names, do-not-call isn't comparable to do-not-track. Do-not-call completely stops telemarking calls, while do-not-track only affects ads served based on data gleaned from tracking users across the Web.)

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But even if do-not-track becomes law this year, there's no reason to think it would lead to the end of either free content or online advertising. On the contrary, do-not-track is just another name for the notice-and-choice principles the industry has endorsed since at least 2000.

The idea behind do-not-track is that consumers should have an easy way to opt out of all behavioral targeting -- precisely the same concept that industry groups endorse in their self-regulatory settings. Ten years ago, the Network Advertising Initiative launched with the goal of enabling one-stop opt-outs for consumers. Now, the industry's icon effort also aims to inform consumers how to opt out of targeting with a single click.

What, then, would change if do-not-track were enacted? One change -- probably the most important -- is that the industry would be regulated. That, in itself, is seen as threatening given that laws often have unintended consequences: Sometimes the wording is so ambiguous that the laws end up restricting the type of activity that isn't generally seen as problematic.

But, while the fear of unintended consequences is legitimate, it makes no sense to argue that allowing people to opt out of online ad targeting will hurt the industry while at the same time encouraging companies to use the new Digital Advertising Alliance icons that, in the end, enable easy opt-outs.

 

*Correction: This column has been updated to reflect that 86% of respondents to an informal Future of Privacy Forum survey said they do not believe that do-not-track will not be enshrined in law by the end of the year.
2 comments about "Will Do-Not-Track Become Law This Year?".
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  1. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, January 20, 2011 at 6:12 p.m.

    Thanks for the article Wendy. I have a question for the community: So, if I opt out of targeted advertising should I pay for the content that I request online? Since the web sites are not getting the ad revenue from my visits, I would suggest that people who opt out of advertising should indeed "pay to play." The "do not track" mechanism should not penalize the publishers.

  2. Bruce May from Bizperity, January 20, 2011 at 10:12 p.m.

    As you point out, “The idea behind do-not-track is that consumers should have an easy way to opt out of all behavioral targeting -- precisely the same concept that industry groups endorse in their self-regulatory settings. Ten years ago, the Network Advertising Initiative launched with the goal of enabling one-stop opt-outs for consumers.” Yet, in ten years it has not happened. Some things are simply beyond the ability of an industry to achieve without some regulatory incentives. The bottom line is that this will be good for everyone, the industry and consumers alike. You can continue to believe that ad networks should remain completely unregulated but that didn’t work out so well for the financial industry did it?

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