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Top Senate Democrat calls for 'do not track,' advertisers protest

April 24, 2013|By Jessica Guynn
  • Putting renewed pressure on the online advertising industry that he says has failed to protect Americans' privacy, Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va. called for legislation this year that would create a "do not track" option for consumers.
Putting renewed pressure on the online advertising industry that he says… (Tyler Evert / Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Putting renewed pressure on the online advertising industry that he says has failed to protect Americans' privacy, a top Senate Democrat called for legislation this year that would create a "do not track" option for consumers.

"I have long expressed skepticism about the ability –- or willingness –- of companies to regulate themselves on behalf of consumers when it affects their bottom line," Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a written statement.

It's unclear whether the proposal will get traction as Congress wrestles with immigration and other pressing national concerns.

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The debate over "do not track" has raged for years. Advertising groups and consumer watchdogs agree consumers should have the ability to opt out of having their personal information collected and shared, but they remain at odds on how precisely to do it.

The industry has insisted that it can regulate itself and has created an opt-out system with participating advertisers. It says 20 million people have visited that site, and 1 million have decided to opt out of being tracked.

Companies collect personal data so that ads can be targeted to consumers based on their Internet browsing history. Efforts to regulate that practice could harm the online advertising industry, which brought in nearly $37 billion in revenue in 2012, trade groups say.

"The advertising industry administers the fastest growing, most comprehensive self-governing system that allows Internet users to easily opt out of receiving interest-based ads on a company-by-company or across-the-board basis," Bob Liodice, president of the Assn. of National Advertisers, said in an emailed statement.

Rockefeller said Wednesday that these voluntary efforts have not worked because some online advertisers ignore consumers' requests that they not be tracked.

In an era of increasingly sophisticated tracking technologies, the ACLU called on Congress to act.

"Citizens have increasingly taken steps to guard their privacy. But even as consumers attempt to protect themselves — by deleting Web history and cookies, or installing ad-tracking software — companies keep coming up with increasingly stealthy and evolving ways to track," the ACLU said.

It praised Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox browser for automatically blocking third-party cookies, a move that has alarmed the advertising industry. The industry is a rare bright spot in a difficult economy, and less information on consumers could translate into lower ad prices.

"Mozilla's efforts to block third-party cookies and other similar steps to undermine interest-based advertisements threaten the functionality of the Internet more broadly. Consumers will not see fewer ads, but rather would be on the receiving end of a blizzard of untailored, spam-like ads," Liodice said.

"Do not track" is part of a broader scrutiny of digital privacy. Consumer watchdogs are particularly worried about people's sensitive online data when they are using mobile devices which can reveal their location and create a dossier of their habits, possibly making them vulnerable to price discrimination or identity theft.

ALSO:

Online 'do not track' bill introduced in California senate

FTC calls on online ad industry to agree on 'do not track'

FTC: Give mobile device users more privacy disclosures -- or else


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