Advocates Push “Do Not Track” Law

Aug 31, 2011 9:00 AM PST

WASHINGTON — An online behavioral advertising industry self-regulation plan, currently in deployment, is coming under attack as being insufficient to protect consumer privacy from abuse by companies that track their Internet usage.

Consumer advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog (www.consumerwatchdog.org) says that while members of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and other trade groups are beginning to comply with the program’s guidelines, including the display of the Advertising Option Icon on the pages of compliant websites, its self-regulatory program is not a true “do not track” option; as it only offers “a limited privacy feature consumers may use to block targeted advertisements from participating companies.”

“The program does allow consumers to avoid targeted advertising by members of the IAB and other participating companies that agree to comply, and the choice will persist as long as a consumer does not clear cookies on her browser,” states a release from Consumer Watchdog. “Although this is a small step in the direction of consumer choice, it does not give consumers meaningful control over tracking of their activities online, because companies may still collect and use that information for purposes other than targeted advertising.”

According to Consumer Watchdog, legislation enacting a "Do Not Track Me" option is necessary to ensure consumers have an easy to use, effective and universal choice to avoid tracking, because the industry-adopted privacy initiative fails on several accounts: including its lack of enforceability, persistency, transparency and universal applicability — such as in the mobile arena, where the consumer opt-out does not apply.

For example, transparency is a factor, says Consumer Watchdog, since consumers are not notified before tracking begins of how and why they are being tracked; while choices made by consumers last only until the surfer clears his browser’s cookies — a common occurrence among privacy and security conscious Internet users. Due to the program’s voluntary nature, the icon appears on only 11 percent of advertisements; and even worse, says Consumer Watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission cannot punish companies that choose not to participate in the self-regulatory initiative.

“Consumers have no more control today than they did yesterday over whether their information is tracked and collected by companies online,” Carmen Balber, Washington director for Consumer Watchdog, stated. “This industry program is another example of the failure of self-regulation to protect consumers from unwanted monitoring of every move they make on the Internet and their mobile devices.”

“Action by Congress and the FTC to require a ‘Do Not Track Me’ option is crucial for consumers to gain control over their own information,” Balber concluded.

More information about the Advertising Option Icon and program may be found at www.aboutads.info.

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