FTC Floats Idea of ‘Do Not Track’ Option for Web Browsing

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Image: Syzmon Apanowicz

In a report yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission issued a framework for developing a do-not-track option for online browsing, which would seek to limit the ability of online advertisers to track Internet users’ viewing preferences.

“Technological and business ingenuity have spawned a whole new online culture and vocabulary,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “The FTC wants to help ensure that the growing, changing, thriving information marketplace is built on a framework that promotes privacy, transparency, business innovation and consumer choice.”

Many advertisers track and collect data – often surreptitiously – about Internet users’ online searching and browsing activities and then use that information to deliver targeted ads.

The do-not-track option, which would be similar to the FTC’s 2003 “do not call” registry, would likely come in the form of a browser tool, which when activated by users, limits online advertisers’ ability to track Internet users, according to the report “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: A Proposed Framework for Businesses and Policymakers.”

FTC wants consumer privacy to be part of a company’s overall business strategy, what the agency calls “privacy by design,” which Leibowitz said is often a missing ingredient.

The FTC report also states industry efforts to self-regulate have so far been “too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection.”

While some sites and advertisers disclose their practice of data collection through lengthy, legalistic privacy policies, FTC said it found many of those policies too often “force consumers to bear too much burden in protecting their privacy.”

Online ad revenue, which swelled to $12.1 in the first half of 2010, according to Business Week, is a cash cow for the industry, but ad industry leaders contend a do-not-track option is unnecessary and that companies can regulate themselves.

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