Commentary

FTC's Brill: Mobile Privacy Practices 'In Desperate Need Of Reform'

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill today reiterated her support for a universal do-not-track mechanism that will allow consumers to opt out of online tracking as well as receiving behaviorally targeted ads.

"Everyone recognizes that behavioral advertising helps support online content and services and that many consumers value the personalization such ads provide," she said in an address at the Center for American Progress. "But we are also all concerned that much of the tracking underlying this advertising is invisible to consumers who, at present, do not have real choices about how -- or if -- their personal information about their cyber behavior is collected and used."

In discussing do-not-track, she emphasized a point made by other FTC officials: To honor consumers' opt-out requests, ad networks and other companies must stop collecting data about users and not merely stop sending them ads because they've previously visited certain sites.

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Brill also said that she believes that consumers should have the ability to opt out of all mobile tracking through a do-not-track mechanism. "This branch of the information superhighway is in desperate need of basic reform," she said of mobile data-collection. She added that 22 out of the 30 top paid apps lack a privacy policy, according to a recent Future of Privacy Forum study.

At this point, it's been around six months since the FTC officially proposed that Web users should be able to opt out of online tracking via a universal do-not-track mechanism, though the concept itself dates to at least late 2007, when privacy groups proposed the idea.

Since then, the major browser developers (with the notable exception of Google) have said they will offer do-not-track headers, but very few ad networks have promised to respect them. While ad networks have been joining the self-regulatory program run by the umbrella group Digital Advertising Alliance, a self-regulatory program, they need only stop using data that's collected from people who opt out of behavioral targeting. Those ad networks don't have to stop gathering information about users who say they want to avoid behavioral targeting.

Brill also said that protecting consumers' privacy involves more than simply addressing economic harms, like those caused by identity theft or spyware. "By focusing only on tangible harms to consumers, this approach misses the less quantifiable -- but none the less real -- injuries suffered by those whose sensitive information -- about medical conditions, children, or sexual orientation -- is exposed," she said.

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