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FTC pitches 'Do Not Track' plan to Congress

U.S. lawmakers get their first look at proposed "Do Not Track" legislation, as the head of the Federal Trade Commission meets Congress to explain why online consumer privacy protection is so badly needed.

Consumer protection boss wants opt-out provision built into browsers

U.S. lawmakers got their first look at proposed "Do Not Track" legislation this week, as the head of the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection bureau met Congress to explain why online consumer privacy protection is so badly needed.

David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission's bureau of consumer protection, told Congress this week that stricter privacy regulation is needed for consumers. ((Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press))
David Vladeck said consumers are largely unaware of how thoroughly their online habits are tracked by marketers, advertisers and other third parties. Nor do they know what happens with that data, he said Thursday.

Tracking software is now so sophisticated that a third party can see what's on consumers' screens, record their mouse movements, clicks, and how long they stay on a page.

Vladeck pointed to an example from earlier in the week, when the FTC prosecuted a company that was allowing parents to spy on their children's web activities. The company was also selling access to kids' chats and web history to third parties.

'The commission supports a more uniform and comprehensive consumer choice.'— David Vladeck, FTC director of consumer protection

The practice allows marketers to build dossiers on consumers and target them more directly. It's called behavioural marketing.

"The commission supports a more uniform and comprehensive consumer choice mechanism for online behavioural advertising," Vladeck said in his presentation.

The Do Not Track proposal was raised in a privacy report released by the FTC this week.

A proposal put before the U.S. Congress would allow consumers to opt out of tracking by marketers and other third parties. ((iStock))
Vladeck said the commission does not want something similar to the Do Not Call registry, which requires consumers get their names added to a list that marketers are not allowed to call.

Instead, he said, the FTC is working with companies that develop web browsers to allow settings that would communicate to web trackers that the user does not wish to be tracked.

"(It) would likely involve placing a setting similar to a persistent cookie on a consumer's browser, and conveying that setting to sites that the browser visits, to signal whether or not the consumer wants to be tracked or receive targeted advertisements."

Vladeck said Congress should consider several issues if it chooses to proceed with the Do Not Track legislation.

  • It should not undermine the benefits that behavioural marketing provides to consumers, such as funding content and services.
  • It should not require any sort of registry consumers have to sign up for.
  • It should have an option where consumers can opt out of certain types of tracking or advertising but accept others.
  • It should be simple and easy to find and use.
  • The FTC should be given the power to fine advertisers who don't comply with the requirements of the legislation.

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