Skip to main content

FTC Looking Into Do-Not-Track Option for Avoiding Behavioral Ads

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz says his agency is looking into a browser-level way for consumers to opt out of
behavioral advertising.

That came at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on online privacy Tuesday.
He said that rather than having to make that decision web site by web site, a "do-not-track" option could be overseen by the
FTC or private sector.
Leibowtiz said that his guess was that most people want some ads targeted to their personal preferences and so would not choose
a universal opt out for tracking, but he suggested it would be one way to make it easier for consumers to control tracking

That recommendation could be part of a report the FTC is planning to release this fall.

Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) said he wanted to be kept abreast of the do-not-track option consideration.
Leibowitz also said other FTC recommendations would likely include getting businesses to "bake in" best practices for

information protection and data sharing notice and consent, and ways to make information consent sharing policies clearer and
available at the point of decision rather than several clicks away and buried in fine print.
Leibowitz said that in most circumstances, opt-in privacy policies were best, but always when a policy is being changed or when
the information is sensitive material like social security numbers, medical info or bank records.

He said that
given the FTC's limited rulemaking authority and lack of civil fining
authority, the commission would continue to work with industry, perhaps
prodding industry more than it would like,
and that he was hoping industry would "buy in" to his recommendations.

Commerce Committee Chairman
Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) made it clear from the outset of the hearing
that he wanted to look out for the average consumer, not "a savvy
computer whiz-kid" or "a lawyer who reads legalese
for a living and can delve into the fine print of what privacy
protections he or she is getting."

Rockefeller and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), who co-chaired the
hearing, related it directly to targeted marketing, painting pictures of
consumers' buying habits being tracked without their knowledge
or consent to build behavioral profiles.

this scenario," said Rockefeller. "[Y]ou're in a shopping mall. And
while you're there, there's a machine recording every store you enter
and every product you look at, and every product you
buy. You go into a bookstore.  The machine records every book you
purchase or peruse.  Then, you go to the drugstore.  The machine is
watching you there, meticulously recording every product you pick up -
from the shampoo to the allergy medicine to your personal
prescription. The machine records your every move that day. Then, based
on what you look at, where you shop, what you buy - it builds a
personality profile on you.  It predicts what you may want in the future
- and starts sending you coupons. Further, it tells
businesses what a good potential client you may be - and shares your
personality profile with them."

Rockefeller said that scenario is playing out "every second of every day."

The goal of
the hearing was to figure out what consumers know and don't know about
how they are being tracked online, what benefit they may get out of it,
and what they can do to stop it if they don't
want to be tracked.
Dorgan, who
held hearings several years ago during the flap over Nebuad's deep
packet inspection technique for providing what it said was anonymized
information about web surfers, asked Leibowitz what
had been learned since then.

Leibowitz said
that one thing he learned was that there was a "fair amount of
corporate responsibility." He said companies were pretty quick to
back off the technique.

He also
cited the emergence of a coalition of more than 100 companies with "big
internet presences" who were trying to come up with an easy way to opt
out of targeted advertising.