The federal government has put Google, Microsoft, Apple and other technology companies on notice: Give consumers a way to prevent advertisers from tracking their movements across the Web — or face regulation.
Just recently Senators John Kerry and John McCain introduced a new consumer privacy bill to the Senate, the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011, the first piece of privacy legislation introduced this session.
“Consumers have a right to know when and how their personal and sensitive information is being used online – and most importantly to be able to say ‘no thanks’ when companies seek to gather that information without their approval,” Sen. Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a press release about his proposed bill the Do Not Track Online Act of 2011.
Just days later Congressmen Ed Markey and Joe Barton introduced the Do Not Track Kids Act, which would expand the protections of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and prevent online behavioral advertising to persons under age 18. The Act would prohibit Web sites from knowingly collecting data from minors for purposes of “targeted marketing.”
The legislation would also broaden the definition of “personal information” to include IP addresses, unique identifiers, and anything else that might permit the identification of a specific computer and would bring mobile applications under the auspices of COPPA.
All of these privacy and do not track bills are happening while at the same time reports of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are integrating Facebook, Twitter and YouTube into their communications operations. A recent survey conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation found that most members of congress are using social media to gauge public opinion, communicate with constituents and reach out to new people.
Most of the big players like Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple and Google are already working on tools and settings which will give consumers more control. Microsoft has a feature called “tracking protection” in Internet Explorer 9.0 that lets users create “black lists” of Web sites to be blocked and “white lists” of sites that are deemed acceptable. Mozilla has a setting in its Firefox 4 browser that sends a signal to alert websites, advertisers and ad networks if a user does not want to be tracked. Apple is expected to include a similar feature, called a “header,” in its Safari browser. Google’s Chrome browser is piggybacking on the Digital Advertising Alliance by offering a plug-in that saves opt-out cookies even if other cookies are erased.
For such tools to work, however, there must be industry consensus on what Do Not Track obligations should actually mean. And right now, there seems to be little agreement. Nearly everyone accepts that publishers should be able to measure traffic volumes on their own sites, but, should advertisers be allowed to track how many visitors see or click on their ads?
The industry’s self-regulatory programs, for one, do not turn off data collection. Consumers who install an opt-out cookie no longer receive targeted ads from participating companies, but may still be tracked for non-advertising purposes, which does not satisfy the privacy watchdogs. Equally important for Do Not Track to succeed, the technology must be easy to find and use. If Do Not Track tools are too confusing or involve too much effort, people won’t embrace them, warns Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “We can’t expect users to spend a lot of time reconfiguring their browsers,” he says.
Senator Rockefeller has sponsored a bill that would force the FTC to write binding, industry-wide Do Not Track rules. The Internet marketing industry wants to head off those efforts and insists it just needs more time to establish meaningful privacy controls.
For now, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz is willing to give the industry a chance before calling for legislation. Even without a government mandate, he noted, it’s in the industry’s self-interest to make Do Not Track work. After all, Leibowitz says, “nobody wants to be on the wrong side of consumers.”
It is amazing how fast the federal government has adopted social media in it’s communication operations, it is also amazing how quickly they jumped to regulation and laws trying to control it.