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FTC calls on online ad industry to agree on do-not-track standard

April 17, 2013|By Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO -- New Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez had some tough words on "do not track" in her first speech to the advertising industry.

Ramirez on Wednesday urged the industry to give consumers "effective and meaningful privacy protection" by agreeing on a global standard that would let consumers signal with their browsers to websites, advertising networks and data brokers that they do not want their online activities monitored for marketing purposes.

"Consumers still await an effective and functioning do-not-track system, which is now long overdue," Ramirez said during a speech to the American Advertising Federation.

Ramirez said consumers routinely report "unease" with online tracking and the industry risks losing their trust if it does not find a way to give consumers more control over what’s done with their data.

"An online advertising system that breeds consumer discomfort is not a foundation for sustained growth. More likely, it is an invitation to Congress and other policymakers in the U.S. and abroad to intervene with legislation or regulation and for technical measures by browsers or others to limit tracking," she said.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV on Wednesday scheduled a hearing for next week to examine what steps the industry has taken to give consumers more control over how their personal data is collected online.

In February he introduced a bill -- the "Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2013" -- that would require the FTC to establish a standard mechanism for people to use their browsers to tell websites, advertising networks, data brokers and others whether they want their data gathered or not. It would also prohibit online services from collecting any personal details from consumers who opted out of the tracking. He backed off a similar bill two years ago after industry groups said they would develop a mechanism to honor consumer requests.

"Industry made a public commitment to honor do-not-track requests from consumers but has not yet followed through," Rockefeller said in a statement.

For years consumer groups have advocated for people to have a greater say in what happens to their online data. The advertising and technology industries fear limiting the collection of consumer data could stifle online business and threaten the availability of free online services that are supported by advertising. The advertising industry has promoted its own plan to self-regulate.

For months, an international effort by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, has been underway to give consumers more control over their online data, but there has been little agreement reached in the talks between academics, privacy advocates, lawmakers and advertising groups.

Ramirez urged the advertising industry to "dive into the W3C process with good faith and a resolution to hammer out their differences to develop a transparent Internet advertising system that meets the needs of consumers and advertisers alike."

The industry reacted with frustration to Ramirez's remarks.

Stuart Ingis, counsel to the Digital Advertising Alliance, a trade group representing the advertising industry, told AdWeek: "We keep getting demagogued by the FTC. We have solved it. The DAA's program covers 100% of the advertising ecosystem."

Consumer watchdog Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, praised Ramirez's stance on "do not track."

"New FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez hit a home run for the consumer today. By urging the ad lobby to honor a request by a consumer that they not to be tracked online, Ramirez sent a strong signal to industry," Chester said. "She knows that U.S. online companies are fighting digital tooth and nail against a proposed standard that would restrict how an individual may be tracked and profiled online."

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