FTC Proposes Do Not Track Feature For Online Consumers

The Federal Trade Commission proposed to Congress Thursday a "Do Not Track" option that gives consumers the ability to opt out of being tracked online by advertisers and e-commerce sites when surfing the Web.

David Vladeck, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, acknowledged to members of Congress that the practice of tracking users' online activities -- known as behavioral advertising -- is valuable to target specific users' needs with personalized ads. However, Vladeck said that the practice requires more transparency while giving users greater control that governs who access to their online activities.

Vladeck's testimony underscored a new FTC report on consumer privacy, released Wednesday, which provided a comprehensive framework to increase online consumer privacy, transparency, e-commerce innovation and choice.

While the FTC said that some industries have taken necessary steps to improve consumer privacy online and provide more user control, overall efforts have fallen short, with many privacy mechanisms too complex, tedious and difficult for individuals to use or understand. Meanwhile, some commercial organizations block behavioral advertising but keep data that is gathered on users' online activities.

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"We're looking for something that is actually available to consumers and offers a comprehensive opt out," said Edward Felten, the FTC's incoming chief technologist, according to a blog from The New York Times Thursday. "But we're not there, and we have quite a ways to go," he said.

Subsequently,"the Commission supports a more uniform and comprehensive consumer privacy mechanism for online behavioral advertising," also known as "Do Not Track," according to the FTC report.

The FTC proposed that, if applied, the Do Not Track features would be likely be in the form of a cookie or other persistent setting on users' Web browsers and would be applicable to all commercial organizations -- online and offline -- that collect or use data to track consumers.

Unlike the FTC's Do Not Call list, the Do Not Track implementation would not require a blacklisted registry that applies to telemarketers based on unique identifiers, but instead be a browser-based mechanism. The FTC also suggested that the browser mechanism should be simple and easy to find, while providing an option that gives users the choice to completely opt out or select various levels of advertising they wish to receive or data they are willing to allow others to access.

In addition, the FTC said that the feature ultimately should not undermine the benefits that online behavioral advertising provides to consumers, such as funding content and services.

The "Do Not Track" feature is part of a larger proposed strategy termed ’privacy by design,’ approach that builds consumer privacy into everyday business practices while providing ways for them to easily prevent their online behaviors from being monitored and stored. Under the plan, advertisers would be required to delete user data on a regular basis and would have to clearly delineate privacy options in a widely understood format.