Will the FTC's do-not-track list proposal matter?

Commission's privacy report outlines framework for better privacy safeguards online

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It's no secret that too many companies exhibit a callous disregard for the privacy rights of web users. The Federal Trade Commission's 122-page report released Wednesday is a step toward addressing that concern.

Which is good. Someone needs to advocate on behalf of web users and online consumers. But the report is less a shot across the bow than a plea for better behavior and request for input. As such, it's not likely to make any immediate impact.

First, here's a summary of what the FTC's report proposes, courtesy of IDG's Grant Gross:

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

The do-not-track list, 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. The do-not-track list could be implemented by the Internet industry or by the U.S. Congress, the FTC said.

We're in trouble right away. The list "could be implemented by the Internet industry"? Sure. Let's have the foxes guard the hen house. That always works.

Sadly, the revolving door of lunacy that is the U.S. Congress probably wouldn't be much better.

In a press conference unveiling the report, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz uncorks a contender for understatement of the year:

"Despite some good actors, self-regulation of privacy has not worked adequately and is not working adequately for American consumers," he said.

Surprisingly enough, the president of an anti-regulation organization thinks the do-not-track list is a bad idea:

"It is highly likely the DNT mechanism would interfere with those benefits (of online advertising)," said Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute. "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."

I'm choking as I type this, but Lenard makes a pretty good point with that last part there. Nonetheless, there are things that can and should be done to protect consumers. The primary one is that it should be much clearer to consumers what private information is being gathered and how it's being used.

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