FTC calls for online do-not-track list to protect privacy

The list could be implemented by industry or by Congress, the FTC report says

By , IDG News Service |  Internet, privacy

U.S. Web users should be able to sign up for a do-not-track feature in browsers that would prohibit websites and advertising networks from following their movements online, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday.

The do-not-track idea, modeled after a national do-not-call list targeting telemarketers, would help consumers better protect their privacy because a uniform mechanism for opting out of online tracking does not yet exist, the FTC said in an online privacy report released Wednesday (PDF). The do-not-track list could be implemented by the Internet industry or by the U.S. Congress, the FTC said.

[ See also: FTC 'Do Not Track' proposal: Bigger fish to fry ]

"Companies engaged in behavioral advertising may be invisible to most consumers," the report said. "The FTC repeatedly has called on stakeholders to create better tools to allow consumers to control the collection and use of their online browsing data."

The report shows a failure of private industry to adequately address customer privacy concerns online, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said during a press conference. "Despite some good actors, self-regulation of privacy has not worked adequately and is not working adequately for American consumers," he said. "We deserve far better from the companies we entrust our data to, and industry as a whole needs to do a far better job."

Earlier this year, Leibowitz said the FTC was considering a do-not-track list, and several privacy groups proposed such a list back in 2007. Opponents of a do-not-track mechanism say it could dramatically decrease the effectiveness of online targeted, or behavioral, advertising. The FTC report suggests that an easy way implement a do-not-track feature is through Web browser settings.

The FTC report suggested a do-not -track (DNT) feature should not interfere with the benefits of online advertising, said Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute, an anti-regulation think tank.

"But, of course, that's the issue," Lenard said. "It is highly likely the DNT mechanism would interfere with those benefits. Furthermore, the DNT mechanism cannot be compared to the popular do-not-call list, which reduces unwanted marketing messages. A DNT mechanism wouldn't necessarily reduce advertising messages, it just would likely make them less useful."

The FTC should compare the benefits and costs of do-not-track before making such a "major proposal," Lenard added.

The FTC is not yet calling for do-not-track legislation in Congress, but Web browser makers and other Internet companies should act quickly to implement a universal do-not-track list, Leibowitz said.

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