Does the Web Need a 'Do Not Track' Policy?

The FTC thinks so. Here are the pros and cons.

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It seems like a great idea: A "do not track" policy on the Web that prevents companies from tracking your online habits and collecting your personal data. On Wednesday, that's precisely what the Federal Trade Commission proposed with a new report criticizing online advertisers for failing to implement reasonable privacy practices. It's inspired by the popular Do Not Call Registry enacted in 2003, which protects people from calls from telemarketers. However, some privacy advocates aren't wild about the idea, saying it gives the government a backdoor to access people's personal information. Here are the pros and cons:

The agency said this would “likely be a persistent setting on consumers’ browsers, so consumers can choose whether to allow the collection of data regarding their online searching and browsing activities.” According to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal, the Mozilla Foundation — which is responsible for the Firefox browser — has been working on a standard for such a setting, and a House subcommittee is holding hearings this week on potential do-not-track proposals.
The document published by the Commission is very thoughtful, evenhanded and places great emphasis on supporting the innovation that is made possible when technology companies do have access to user data. Instead of using scare tactics, as some media outlets have done in recent months, the FTC recognizes that different people have different levels of awareness about activity tracking and different degrees of willingness to trade-off privacy for customization and technology innovation. The Commission wisely recommends empowering users to give informed consent to whatever degree of tracking they are submitted to.
  • Seems Pretty Reasonable, writes Cynthia Boris at Marketing Pilgrim:

The main buzz word here is “transparency.” The FTC wants to make sure that consumers understand their right to privacy and that they’re given simple instructions for how to exercise those rights.  Sounds reasonable, but will it be enough to derail the practice of targeted ads or is it unlikely that many consumers will take advantage of the Do Not Track option out of pure indifference?

Facebook in particular has come under fire for the way it handles users’ information, including changes to its privacy settings and more recent developments such as the fact that user IDs were being sent to third-party companies. Facebook’s handling of user privacy triggered a letter to the FTC from four senators complaining about the company’s behavior. Some third parties associated with Facebook passed on user IDs to advertisers, and in the case of Rapleaf, the marketing database company connected those user IDs to other personally identifiable information from other sources (although Rapleaf said later that this was inadvertent and that it has stopped doing so).
  • Yeah, But How Would It Work? intones a skeptical Austin Carr at Fast Company:
No one is saying how the tool would work. The FTC provided few details, though its incoming chief technologist Edward Felten said the system would, in fact, need to offer a "comprehensive opt-out." The issue is that, unlike the "Do Not Call" registry, which relies on a list of unique telephone numbers, a "Do Not Track" registry could not depend on similar identifiers since IP addresses and other Internet IDs are constantly changing.
  • This Could Actually Be a Bad Thing, writes Adam Thierer at The Technology Liberation Front:
Ironically, depending on how it’s implemented, a “Do Not Track” mechanism could potentially require individuals to surrender more personal information about themselves to companies or the government for purposes of authentication and enforcement of the rule. It would also require a re-architecting of the Internet and the potential regulation of every web browser to ensure compliance.  This will give the FTC and other lawmakers far greater control over the Internet’s architecture.
  • This Would Be More Useless Than Anything Else, writes Patricio Robles at Econsultancy:

For many publishers and service providers, it may even be impossible to respect Do Not Track preferences. Since so many publishers and service providers rely on third party ad networks, many of which themselves work with other ad networks and exchanges to fill remnant inventory, it's quite unclear how anyone working with an ad network could be 100% certain that his or her website was dutifully respecting the new browser setting.

At the end of the day, the FTC's Do Not Track mechanism, as generally proposed, would almost certainly be of little practical use in protecting consumer privacy.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.