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FTC’s Ramirez: Do-Not-Track Long Overdue

24 Apr, 2013 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) new head, Edith Ramirez, is upping the pressure on online advertisers and browser makers to finalize a global online tracking standard, saying that the self-regulatory process has made too little progress and is moving too slowly.

Last week, Ramirez told a group gathered at the American Advertising Foundation in Washington that a do-not-track system that lets consumers easily stop online data collection “is long overdue.” And that while many organizations and Web companies have taken steps toward bringing about do-not-track, consumers still lack “an effective and functioning do-not-track system.”

She added that consumers routinely report “unease” with online tracking and the industry risks losing their trust if it doesn’t 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,” Ramirez said. “We advocated for a persistent do-not-track mechanism that allows consumers to stop control of data across all sites, and not just for targeting ads.”

The chair also urged the advertising industry to work with the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) to develop a do-not-track standard that’s browser-based, championing Microsoft’s do-not-track browser and Mozilla’s plan to block third-party cookies. Last year, Microsoft turned the headers on by default in Internet Explorer 10.

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.”

Ramirez did praise the browser manufacturers for developing do-not-track headers – commands that tell ad networks and publishers that consumers don’t want to be tracked. She also singled out the self-regulatory group Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) as it “widely deployed an icon-based opt-out system,” and promised last year to honor the browser-based do-not-track commands.

Still, Ramirez said that while those moves head in the right direction, none of them are enough in and of themselves because browser-based headers don’t actually stop tracking. Instead, the headers send a signal to publishers and ad networks – which are free to respond however they like. The DAA has promised to honor browser-based headers, but that users must activate the headers themselves.

The industry reacted with frustration to Ramirez’s remarks.

Stuart Ingis, counsel to the DAA, told AdWeek, “We keep getting demagogued by the FTC. We have solved it. The DAA’s program covers 100 percent of the advertising ecosystem.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) called a hearing, set for today, to address why do-not-track is still stalled. “I strongly believe that consumers should be able to manage whether online companies collect their personal information,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “Industry made a public commitment to honor do-not-track requests from consumers but has not yet followed through.”

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