U.S. Lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are being lobbied to intervene to help settle differences between some advertising industry representatives and privacy advocates over how to implement a “do-not-track” option giving consumers the choice of whether they want to be tracked online.
Many companies now track consumers by placing text files called "cookies" on their computers when they visit certain websites in order to tailor ads to them based on their preferences. In response to the growing use of online tracking for advertising and market research, many privacy advocates have called for giving consumers a do-not-track option. The idea gained momentum after the FTC first endorsed the idea in a draft privacy report in December 2010.
Some of the browser providers, including Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, have begun including a do-not-track choice in their browsers. But it is unclear how websites will respond to these do-not-track requests.
Microsoft’s announcement earlier this year that it would offer the latest version of Internet Explorer with the do-not-track option turned on has caused concern among some advertising industry officials and sparked debate over how far the web’s technical standard setting body, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), should go in defining do-not-track standards.
In response to concerns raised by the ad network ValueClick, advertising technology firm 33 Across and others, a group of Republican House lawmakers have written to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz to voice concern with the agency’s role in the W3C process and to request details about whether it is driving efforts to restrict online advertising without adequate authority to do so.
“We are also concerned the FTC and W3C have failed to study how certain implementations of do-not-track could affect third-party advertising networks, the publishers who depend on advertising revenue, and ultimately the consumers who today enjoy a vibrant creative ecosystem of online applications, services and content," said the letter.
The third-party advertisers and publishers most likely to be hurt by implementation of do-not-track are not “adequately represented” in the W3C process and some companies are using this extra-legal policymaking process to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Leibowitz has been vocal in saying that he believes do-not-track should mean that companies will not collect information from consumers except in a few limited instances. But what those are remains up for debate.