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Rockefeller Hammers Online Ad Industry

Online advertisers were between a Rock and a hard place Wednesday.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) took aim at the online advertising industry for what he said was purposely dragging its feet on implementing a voluntary Do Not Track regime. He said he did not trust them to put consumer welfare first if it stood in the way of their business model of collecting info and tracking behavior.

Luigi Mastria, managing director of the Digital Advertising Alliance, said its members-- representing more than 90% of the online ad ecosystem-- were provding consumers the choice to opt out of "relevant ads" and data collection through its online icon system, and that almost 2 million had exercised that option. But he said that a browser-based system was hung up by the lack of a standard definition of tracking, and by moves by Microsoft to make Do Not Track the default setting and Mozilla to test blocking third-party cookies.

That came in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday on the progress of voluntary Do Not Track" standards allowing Web surfers to opt out of having their online behavior tracked for targeted marketing or other purposes.

Rockefeller signaled in advance of the hearing that he thought progress has not been swift enough. That was putting it mildly.

Rockefeller warned from the outset that he did not want to hear talking points about a Do Not Track regime being a threat to the Internet or cybersecurity. In fact, he said he would cut off anyone who tried. Instead, he said, he wants answers on what the holdup is.

Rockefeller said that the online advertising industry had promised last February at a White House event that they would implement the voluntary system by the end of 2012. "They have broken that promise," he said.

Mastria suggested that it was Mozilla and Microsoft who were promise-challenged and had not lived up to the White House agreement they were also party to.

Mozilla SVP Harvey Anderson took offense and said it was advertisers who were not honoring a trillion DNT requests.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she was afraid Rockefeller would stop her-- he didn't-- and said that while privacy was an all-American goal, so was protecting the most vibrant part of the economy. She said she was concerned about protecting consumers, but also about winding up with two or three Internet giants-- like Google-- and "none of the little guys."

A common theme among Republicans on the committee was the concern that a Do Not Track regime could hurt small business and threaten what Mastria called consumer's dual preference for free online content and relevant ads.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said that the current advertising model, and innovative ways to deliver relevant content, allows the Net's long tail to maintain an online presence. He also said advertisers have incentive to evolve their practices to meet consumer expectations.

Rockefeller has reintroduced a bill that would mandate Do Not Track. Co-sponsor Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a new member of the committee, said his takeaway from the hearing was that legislation would be needed to speed up the process.

That came after Mastria had complained that Mozilla and Microsoft were standing in the way and had taken the choice from consumers and put it in the browser.

Blumenthal asked whether legislation was needed to break that impasse, suggesting that the inability to enforce voluntary standards that were in the public interest sounded like a classic case of the need for legisation. Not surprisingly, Mastria disagreed, saying DAA's voluntary regime contained much of what was in the Rockefeller bill.

Rockefeller countered that the DAA regime was completely uninforceable, "and he knows it," the senator added curtly.

The Association of National Advertisers said in a statement it put out just before the hearing was supposed to begin-- it was a few minutes late-- that in the 18 months since the effort was launched, more than 23 million consumers have visited the website to review their options, and a million had exercised a choice. "These numbers clearly demonstrate that the program is working," ANA president Bob Liodice said in a statement.

"The hearing cast a spotlight on a digital marketing industry addicted to consumer data-- and which is fighting 'round the clock to prevent even modest safeguards for privacy, such as Do Not Track," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Rockefeller said that the bottom line was that people did not know how they were being tracked or have control over it, and that the still-young Internet would need to build trust to flourish. He said that people are smart and will eventually better understand the Net, "and they'd better like what they see."