FTC's Ramirez: Do-Not-Track 'Long Overdue'

A do-not-track system that allows consumers to easily stop online data collection is “long overdue,” Federal Trade Commission head Edith Ramirez said this week.

Speaking at the American Advertising Foundation, Ramirez acknowledged that various organizations and Web companies have taken steps toward bringing about do-not-track. But despite those developments, “consumers still await an effective and functioning Do Not Track system, which is now long overdue,” she said.

Ramirez specifically praised the browser manufacturers for developing do-not-track headers -- commands that tell ad networks and publishers that consumers don't want to be tracked. She also noted the self-regulatory group Digital Advertising Alliance has “widely deployed an icon-based opt-out system,” and promised last year to honor the browser-based do-not-track commands.

As Ramirez noted, those moves mark steps toward creating a do-not-track system. But none of them are enough in themselves to do so. For one thing, browser-based headers don't actually stop tracking. Instead, the headers send a signal to publishers and ad networks -- which are free to respond however they like. The Internet standards group World Wide Web Consortium has been trying for two years to figure out for companies should respond to the headers, but the group is at an impasse.

And while the DAA promised to honor browser-based headers, the organization put a big qualification on that commitment. Namely, the DAA said that users must activate the headers themselves. But Microsoft decided last year to turn the headers on by default in Internet Explorer 10. For that reason, the industry says it might not honor do-not-track headers sent by IE10.

Perhaps the biggest problem with creating a do-not-track system is that no one can figure out what “tracking” means. Ad industry groups say that companies should stop sending behaviorally targeted ads -- or ads that are based people's Web-surfing activity -- to consumers who opt out of tracking. But the industry wants to be able to collect data about users for market research, analytics and purposes like frequency capping.

On the other hand, privacy advocates say that do-not-track should end data collection, or at least most forms of it.

Ramirez made clear that the FTC thinks companies should stop gathering data about Web-surfing when consumers say they don't want to be tracked. In her speech this week, she referred to a “persistent Do Not Track mechanism that would apply across industry to all types of tracking ... and allow consumers to stop the collection of nearly all behavioral data gathered across sites and not just the serving of targeted ads.”

Whether the industry and privacy advocates can reach a compromise remains to be seen. In the meantime, lawmakers are watching.

This week, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he has called a hearing to address why do-not-track is still stalled. “I strongly believe that consumers should be able to manage whether online companies collect their personal information,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “Industry made a public commitment to honor Do-Not-Track requests from consumers but has not yet followed through.”

The hearing is slated for next Wednesday afternoon.

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