There's already been quite a bit of news about the FTC's request for Internet companies to enabled features that empower consumers to not be tracked. If you hadn't read the 122-page Privacy report, you'd think the FTC was setting some kind of line in the sand on a feature they're requesting called Do Not Track.
What is Do Not Track?
There are a number of means that companies track consumer behavior online. The most popular, of course, is browser cookies that store data and information as you interact with a site. Some cookies are third-party, meaning that a consumer can be tracked across multiple sites. As well, there are means of capturing data through Flash files… these may not expire and aren't typically deleted when you clear cookies in your browser.
Do Not Track is an optional feature that the FTC would like to get implemented that would empower the consumer to stop from being tracked. One idea is simply to indicate when an advertisement is being placed with tracked data, offering the customer to opt out of the data capture and the advertisement. Another idea from the FTC is to, instead, provide Just In Time data that can be utilized with a consumer's permission to place a relevant ad.
Although the FTC has made these suggestions… and a bit of a hint that if the industry doesn't come up with something, they might… they also recognize the repercussions of such technology. The truth is that responsible marketers and online companies are utilizing behavioral data to generate a better, more relevant user experience. The FTC acknowledges this by stating:
Any such mechanism should not undermine the benefits that online behavioral advertising has to offer, by funding online content and services and providing personalized advertisements that many consumers value
The Privacy report goes on to state that any central registry as with the Do Not Call list is not plausible and won't be explored as a solution. The FTC Privacy Report, itself, raises a number of great questions:
- How should such a mechanism be offered to consumers and publicized?
- How can such mechanism be designed to be as clear and usable as possible for consumers?
- What are the potential costs and benefits of offering the mechanism? For instance, how many consumers
would likely choose to avoid receiving targeted advertising?
- How many consumers, on an absolute and percentage basis, have utilized the opt-out tools currently provided?
- What is the likely impact if large numbers of consumers elect to opt out?
- How would it affect online publishers and advertisers, and how would it affect consumers?
- Should the concept of a universal choice mechanism be extended beyond online behavioral advertising and include, for example, behavioral advertising for mobile applications?
- If the private sector does not implement an effective uniform choice mechanism voluntarily, should the FTC recommend legislation requiring such a mechanism?
So… no reason to panic at this point. Do Not Track is not a sure thing. My guess is that it will never get adopted by the masses. Instead, my prediction is that the report will lead to more transparent privacy and tracking settings on sites (attn: Facebook). That's not a bad thing, I think most legitimate marketers appreciate strong and clear privacy statements and controls.
I would like to personally see browsers adopt some logging and messaging utilities that provide users with clear feedback when their data is being collected, who's storing it, and how it's being utilized to display relevant advertising or dynamic content. If the industry can provide some standards, it will be a great advancement for both consumers and marketers alike. For additional information, visit the Do Not Track collaboration website.