FTC back calls for online prvacy

The Federal Trade Commission has released a report giving support to the development of a ‘do not track’ system which will offer more protection to those who do not wish to have their online actions monitored. 

Following the release of the report, FTC Commissioner Jon Libowitz demanded a new approach to consumer privacy. “Self regulation of privacy has not worked adequately and is not working adequately for American consumers. We deserve far better. A legislative solution will surely be needed if industry doesn’t step up to the plate.”

The report, which is unsurprisingly riling those involved in the advertising industry, offers a damning indictment of previous industry behaviour and calls for a new approach.

“In today’s digital economy, consumer information is more important than ever. Companies are using this information in innovative ways to provide consumers with new and better products and services. Although many of these companies manage consumer information responsibly, some appear to treat it in an irresponsible or even reckless manner,” the report states.

“And while recent announcements of privacy innovations by a range of companies are encouraging, many companies – both online and offline – do not adequately address consumer privacy interests. Industry must do better. For every business, privacy should be a basic consideration.”

Privacy advocates are understandably buoyed by the report, with Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, commenting:”The FTC finally gets it – consumer privacy is seriously at risk online and off.”

However, a backlash has begun from the online advertising industry, worth $23 billion according to the WSJ, highlighting how consumers do indeed benefit from being tracked. Er, do we?  

Rob Norman, Chief Exec of ad buyer WPP PLC’s GroupM North America, believes that free content will be affected. “FTC endorses ‘do not track’; an emotional goodbye to free content so kindly funded by advertisers,” he said in a tweet.

Meanwhile Mike Zaneis, the senior vice president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, believes that there is already sufficient privacy equipment available, citing Aboutads.info which offers the opportunity to opt out of advertisements from around 60 companies.

However, in a separate panel on Wednesday, a Commerce Department official, Daniel J. Weitzner called the current tools available for protecting privacy “blunt instruments,” saying that “We’re supportive of tools that give users more control.

A house subcommittee on consumer protection is holding a hearing on the matter, while the Commerce Department is reportedly planning the release of a report containing online privacy recommendations soon.

Mr Leibowitz of the FTC stated that: “A legislative solution will surely be needed if industry doesn’t step up to the plate”.

The preferred method of providing a ‘do not track’ system would be to incorporate it into web browser software, whereby tracking companies would be alerted not to track the user.  It is believed that Microsoft, Google, Apple and Mozilla have all been working on a form of web-browser based privacy software, according to Leibowitz.  

None of the firms have since confirmed that they were in development of ‘do not track’ software, though appeared to welcome the news.

A Google spokesman said that “the FTC raises some interesting ideas, and we look forward to learning more about what ‘do not track’ could look like.” 

Microsoft declined to comment on specifics, though Brendon Lynch, chief privacy officer, stated that the upcoming version of Explorer will focus on “enabling our customer’s choice and control with respect to their online privacy.”

Mozilla said that the company wants to help find a way for people to opt out of online tracking, while Apple, being the shy and retiring type, refused to comment.