FTC’s New Chief Technologist Lays Out The Limits Of ‘Do Not Track’

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There’s already been plenty of speculation about what the Federal Trade Commission’s “Do Not Track” proposal will mean for online publishers and advertisers. But what they may not realize is just how much tracking will be perfectly fine, even if Do Not Track becomes the law of the land. As the FTC’s first-ever chief technologist made clear in an interview published today, the agency isn’t looking to regulate direct, first-party tracking at all. Nor is the government likely to seek new privacy rules over mobile devices, at least for now.

In an interview with ClickZ news, Ed Felten clarified what the FTC would be looking for as it ramps up privacy enforcement.

»  The FTC isn’t looking to regulate first-party tracking. The Do Not Track feature they envision being a part of the web browsing experience would allow users to opt out of third-party tracking that’s used in behavioral advertising. That means the system wouldn’t apply to “ordinary first party tracking.” In other words, when users visit a website, they’re tacitly accepting a certain degree of tracking by the party that owns or controls that website. This would likely keep activities like Google’s compiling of search data, or an online publisher’s tracking of what users do on the publisher’s own website, clear of government intervention. What the FTC wants is for users to have a way to opt-out from tracking by third-parties, such as advertising networks. The agency also isn’t going to concern itself with online publishers who use analytics software, as long the data collected isn’t combine it with data about a user’s behavior on different websites.

»  Do Not Track probably won’t apply to mobile-for now. “The discussion about tracking is most fully developed in the web setting, so it could make sense to offer a consumer choice mechanism in the web setting first,” said Felten. The FTC will continue to “evaluate the situation in other settings.” That could include tracking on mobile devices, televisions, and game consoles.

»  It still isn’t clear how enforcement will work. If Congress passes a law authorizing the FTC to enforce do-not-track, the FTC would enforce the law directly-investigating and prosecuting sites that track consumers against their will. If that doesn’t happen, and the system is limited to industry self-regulation, the FTC might only “handle compliance problems referred by the self-regulatory organization” and stop companies from being deceptive about whether or not they participate in that self-regulatory scheme.

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