Privacy Advocates Call FTC Ad-Tracking Regulations ‘Only A Start’

Privacy advocates had some muted praise for the Federal Trade Commission’s call for a “Do Not Track” tool to be applied as a persistent setting on consumers’ browsers, but felt that the recommendations still do not go far enough. In what seems like a major blow to the online ad industry, which has fought for years to keep the current self-policing rules in place, the FTC said that companies’ efforts to address privacy through self-regulation “have been too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection.” For the moment, though, the rules don’t seem binding and will depend on Congress, which will continue its hearings on the matter tomorrow, to decide whether to demand more controls over ad targeting.

In a conference call organized by privacy groups including the Center for Digital Democracy have joined with two other consumer advocates, U.S. PIRG, and the World Privacy Forum, advocates described themselves as pleased that the FTC is beginning to take a more aggressive stance on the hidden tools that track users’ online usage and targets them with ads.

But the “do not track” button the FTC hopes will come into play doesn’t seem enforceable just yet. It will take Congress, which is currently in a lame duck session and unlikely to enact anything sweeping, to put teeth behind the recommendations that a tracking blocker be placed on websites and browsers.

As PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski, said, “Although the FTC doesn’t do everything the privacy advocates want, it’s a move in the right direction. It means the industry will be cranking up their disinformation campaigns to get Congress to put a lid on the FTC’s efforts. If Congress does go forward, we’re encouraged that the FTC’s guidelines will help follow through and water down any self-regulatory regime.”

So for now, if the button does indeed materialize on websites, it will not have the power to block cookie-based targeting. At best (or worst, if you’re an ad targeter), the button would merely serve to register a notice to websites that a particular user has chosen not to have their time on the site monitored and that they do not want to be followed by cookie-based ad trackers when they leave the site either.

Peter Eckersley, senior staff techn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, appeared to acknowledge as much. “This kind of do not track mechanism is the regulatory tool we need to take on flash cookies, history detection, web beacons,” he said. “The current situation doesn’t allow consumers the technical means to protect themselves. Even though, you still have the technical capabilities to do it, the do not track button tells companies they shouldn’t.”

Ginger McCall, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, concluded by calling the FTC’s proposal “A good starting part” and that it signaled an end to the reliance on self-policing measures to protect users’ online privacy. “There is still a need for comprehensive privacy law and more aggressive enforcement from the FTC.”

Others also called for the establishment of a federal privacy agency.

Whether any of this does come to pass in the changing political environment, where the Republicans will have control of the House of Representatives, makes today’s victory for privacy advocates appear uncertain. Secondly, even if it does come to pass, it’s worth wondering how much of the population would likely choose to opt-out of ad targeting. No one during the call could hazard a guess at whether consumers would react positively en masse to having more control over the ads they are served.

For the advertising industry, which has been enjoying the return of spending this year, the fear is that even the mildest regulation could have a dampening effect on its revival. And publishers especially, which charge a premium for targeted ads, are also concerned that this could cause a decrease in their revenue gains. In any case, as the advocates said, this is still just the beginning.