Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission backed an Internet consumer protection plan that would let browsers chose whether or not they’ll allow their Web activity to be monitored. Claiming that large Internet companies haven’t done enough to protect the privacy of their users, the FTC has asked for a “Do Not Track” option be made available to all, similar to the commission’s “Do Not Call” list.
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While the term “track” seems threatening, web sites do monitor the activity of their users for advertising purposes. Are you sending an e-mail about your weekend plans? Those last-minute hotel offers don’t pop up by coincidence. Companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo are among those who collect information about their users from their online movement that is used to determine which “personalized” ads can be targeted to them.
What the FTC is proposing to fight these practices is a “Do Not Track” option that would give Internet users the option of informing companies that they don’t wish for their web searches or profile information to be considered in the ads they see, but this doesn’t mean that companies wouldn’t still be watching. There is no ‘off’ switch. If Google wanted to see what was being searched on an IP address, it certainly could, “Do Not Track” list or no. Likely, all that would be implemented are these don’t-track requests, which might be configured through an option on web browsers or through a cookie that flags companies to their preference, something companies could technically ignore.
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A handful of Internet companies are actually advocating for a do-not-track mechanism to be in place. Firefox’s creator Mozilla Corp. and online advertising company Lotame Solutions Inc. are among those asking for more options for consumers, and in some capacity, do-not-track options are already available, though for the most part they have to be switched on company by company. Last week, new site AboutAds.info launched as a tracking alternative which allows users to turn off tracking to 58 advertising companies, including Lotame. But according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, 58 is just a small piece of the pie. The Journal notes they found 131 companies that track the online activity of visitors to the top 50 U.S. websites, while other lists mark the number around 300.
So though the commission’s recommendation is a step in the right direction for decent Internet privacy, it relies largely on companies’ willingness to comply to something that could ultimately cut back on their ad revenue. “There’s a growing sense that the online ad industry is out of control from a privacy perspective and that some rules need to be put in place,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center told The New York Times. “I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we can say ‘do not track’ is the silver bullet when it comes to online advertising.” Just like “Do Not Track” is no silver bullet in the heart of questionable online ad practices, either.
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