President Barack Obama has tapped former Harvard law classmate Edith Ramirez to replace Jon Leibowitz as head of the Federal Trade Commission. The promotion comes as marketing companies face increasing regulatory scrutiny about whether they play fair with consumers when it comes to privacy. In the last four years, the FTC has undertaken a number of measures aimed at strengthening privacy protections. Among others, the agency has recommended that ad companies offer consumers a do-not-track mechanism to opt out of online behavioral marketing, tightened rules regarding data collection from children, and launched a probe of data brokers.
The ad industry is still reeling from news that Mozilla intends to block third-party cookies by default in an upcoming version of the popular Firefox browser. As companies are mulling this development, many industry watchers are wondering whether ad networks will circumvent the upcoming Firefox block -- either by tricking the browser into accepting cookies, or by using other tracking technology, like device fingerprinting or "history-sniffing." Those possibilities aren't far-fetched. On the contrary, Web companies have tried almost every technique in the book to track people.
A group of Internet service providers this week is launching the so-called "six strikes" program, aimed at curbing piracy on peer-to-peer networks. The new "Copyright Alert System" calls for ISPs to penalize suspected infringers with a series of escalating sanctions. Participating ISPs, including AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon, intend to start off by sending warning letters. Users who ignore them -- or who are suspected of doing so -- could then have to visit education sites. Eventually ISPs could throttle some of those users, though some have said they have no intention of doing so.
Two years ago, Mozilla announced that Firefox would offer do-not-track headers that, theoretically, enable people to opt out of online behavioral advertising. The headers don't actually block the tracking cookies that allow ad networks to determine which sites users visit and serve them personalized ads. But Mozilla -- and others, including the Federal Trade Commission -- clearly hoped that publishers and ad networks would honor the signals.
Last month, when McDonald's agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit about whether it falsely advertised meat as "halal," the deal didn't meet with everyone's approval. In particular, Dearborn, Mich. resident Majed Moughni thought the agreement was unsatisfactory -- and he said so on Facebook.
Until last month, people who purchased smartphones were able to unlock their devices without worrying about whether they might have been violating the law by tinkering with the digital rights management software that came with the phones. But now, thanks to the Librarian of Congress, people who unlock phones without carrier approval potentially face legal action.
Late last year, when law professor Peter Swire was tapped to co-chair the World Wide Web Consortium's do-not-track effort, the initiative was going nowhere fast. At that point, the W3C's Tracking Protection Committee had spent more than a year trying to reach an agreement about how Web site operators should respond to do-not-track headers.
If nothing else, a privacy dust-up this week about Google Play shows that companies should never take it for granted that people will just assume their data is being shared.
Many people who want broadband service at home typically have few options other than their local telecom or cable provider. And that situation suits telecoms and cable companies just fine. Just look at what's happening in Georgia, where lawmakers have once again introduced a bill, reportedly backed by Windstream, that would restrict cities from creating their own broadband networks.