This morning, the Federal Trade Commission released its long-anticipated privacy report. The report is the final result of a series of FTC privacy roundtables held earlier this year that solicited comments from leading scholars, industry figures and nonprofits including EFF about the consumer privacy challenges posed by new technologies.
One of the main focuses of the FTC's report is online behavioral advertising. Behavioral advertising refers to companies that generate detailed profiles on consumers in order to create advertisements targeted toward a person's interests. These profiles are typically generated when companies surreptitiously track a user's movement around the Internet, often using tracking features such as tracking cookies. This practice has recently received a great deal of media scrutiny and has been widely criticized by many in the privacy community as inherently deceptive and unfair to consumers, who may never realize that their movements on the Internet are being tracked. In a sense, the biggest problem is not the targeted ads but the exhaustive records of peoples' reading and other online activities that are collected in order to facilitate that targeting.
The FTC report specifically endorses the idea of a standardized "Do Not Track" mechanism that would allow individuals to restrict the flow of their personal data to advertisers. Do Not Track is a response to the fact that it is currently extremely impractical for consumers to defend themselves against the astonishing array of sophisticated tracking technologies that are easy to deploy and in widespread use. One of the strongest arguments for the technical feasibility of Do Not Track can be found in this interesting blog post.
Of course, behavioral advertising is not a new issue for the FTC. They issued proposed principles for industry self-regulation back in 2007. However, this self-regulatory approach has been widely criticized as ineffective -— leading to speculation that it is time for direct regulation of behavioral tracking. How such a regulatory approach should be sculpted is an issue that has been hotly debated, and which we will continue to explore in future posts on this subject.
The FTC's new privacy report is a promising development in the evolution of online consumer privacy. EFF looks forward to working with other organizations to address the issues raised by this report. The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will delve into the issue of Do Not Track more fully during a hearing scheduled for tomorrow, and we have high hopes that the conversation will be furthered by an upcoming Department of Commerce report.
With the publication of the privacy report, it seems that the FTC is ready to tackle some of the most challenging issues of online consumer privacy - including revolutionary approaches to defending personal privacy such as Do Not Track.