Will do-not-track features and self-regulation initiatives be enough to stave off regulations?
By Jennifer L. Saunders
Reports on Mozilla's launch this week of a do-not-track feature for its Firefox browser and plans coming forward from Google and Microsoft are raising questions as to whether such industry-created features will be enough to assuage Federal Trade Commission concerns about consumer privacy.
While the FTC called for do-not-track in its recent report on Internet privacy and continues to gather input on the next step, a growing list of federal legislators are slated to propose privacy bills in the weeks ahead, and do-not-track is among the issues expected to be debated on Capitol Hill as privacy concerns persist.
The California Office of Privacy Protection’s Joanne McNabb, CIPP, shared her perspective on online tracking for a PBS report on privacy, stating, "We think we're the customers when we're shopping around online. In fact, we're the product; we're the raw material that's being marketed. Trafficked.”
Mozilla’s new feature is one of several that have come in response to calls by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for companies to provide comprehensive opt-out tools to Internet users who do not want their online activities followed for advertising purposes.
The beta version, released this week, allows users to check a box opting not to be tracked, which then transmits that message to each site the users visit.
"We believe the header-based approach has the potential to be better for the Web in the long run because it is a clearer and more universal opt-out mechanism than cookies or blacklists," Mozilla Privacy Lead Alex Fowler explained in ClickZ feature, adding that it is less complex and more persistent than other techniques.
However, the report points out that “the mechanism will only allow users to opt out of being tracked by parties that choose to enable the technology. In order to satisfy the FTC, therefore, some form of monitoring and enforcement would likely be required.”
The Wall Street Journal reports on Microsoft’s unveiling of “an almost-finished version of its latest Internet Explorer browser,” commonly known as IE9, that “addresses growing concerns over the amount of private information that is collected each time a Web user visits a site.”
Like the Mozilla feature, and Google’s “Keep My Opt Outs,” which consumers may activate for its Chrome browser, IE9 asks users to opt in to the do-not-track service in order to opt out of being tracked online.
The IE9 version “allows users to employ lists of Web sites recommended for blocking,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s report.
While many have voiced support for industry to take the lead in addressing consumer privacy concerns through do-not-track options and self-regulatory approaches, the nature of each of these new do-not-track options requires users to take action as opposed to having their privacy be the default setting. This prompts the question as to whether they will provide the do-not-track solution the FTC is seeking.
FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch is among those cautioning that he is “not yet prepared to fully embrace the newly proposed do-not-track mechanisms” being offered by various online companies.
And speaking at a recent event in California, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill said that if the self-regulatory approaches coming forward from the online industry do not meet the FTC’s standards, “we will ask Congress to take up the issue.”
Editor’s note: Hear more from Mozilla’s Alex Fowler in the session “EU Cookies Under Siege” at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit 2011 in March.