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No-Track List Not Practical, Says Expert

By Ken Magill

While the Federal Trade Commission is seemingly more and more hell bent by the day to implement a so-called do-not-track list for people who don’t want their Internet behavior recorded for advertising purposes, at least one expert says the whole idea is simply not practical.

The FTC last week released a report saying the online advertising industry’s efforts at self regulation of behavioral advertising “have been too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection.”

Among the report’s recommendations is giving people a universal opt-out option from being tracked for advertising purposes.

“The most practical method of providing such universal choice would likely involve the placement of a persistent setting, similar to a cookie, on the consumer’s browser signaling the consumer’s choices about being tracked and receiving targeted ads,” said the report. “Commission staff supports this approach, sometimes referred to as ‘Do Not Track,’” the report said.

However, according to Internet expert John Levine—frequent speaker to trade groups on Internet-related topics, expert witness, and author of Internet for Dummies, among other things—a do-not-track list isn’t remotely practical.

“Computers don’t have phone numbers so there’s no easy way to identify people,” he said. “The other thing is you can’t tell if there’s a violation. If someone makes a sales call on my home phone I know it’s a DNC [do-not-call] violation. If somebody’s tracking me, how would I ever know?”

Levine added that implementing a national do-not-track program isn’t impossible, but it simply is not practical.

“You could add a tracking flag to the browser … and you could upgrade all the browsers and upgrade all the servers but realistically that ain’t going to happen,” he said.

He added that he believes the U.S. should pass permission-based online tracking legislation similar to that of Canada and most of Western Europe and that until then, the do-not-track debate is “just a sideshow.”

Meanwhile the FTC’s report also said the agency plans to push marketers to craft more easily readable privacy policies.

“Specifically, the notice-and-choice model, as implemented, has led to long, incomprehensible privacy policies that consumers typically do not read, let alone understand,” the report said.

But given that privacy policies are written—in part at least—to avoid lawsuits and often by lawyers, it is unclear how simplifying them could be accomplished.

Author’s note: Though Levine has forgotten more about the Internet than I’ll ever know, I respectfully disagree with him on the subject of the U.S. passing Canadian/EU-type privacy legislation.

The whole privacy debate has been built on the fundamentally flawed premise that people own the information surrounding transactions they make with companies, and companies don’t own that information. When a value-for-value transaction takes place between two private entities, both of those entities logically own the information surrounding that transaction.

No one has ever been hurt by behaviorally targeted ads. Legislation that hinders behaviorally targeted online advertising will hurt many providers of worthwhile goods and services for no good reason.

For example, I have personal knowledge of some 529 college savings plans that have shifted significant portions of their ad dollars to online ad networks from infomercials as a result of their success using behaviorally targeted advertising. Why would anyone in their right mind want to hinder them?


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by:
Date: 2010-12-16 13:03:59
Subject: Opt out. Opt in. Sheesh.

Not practical or desirable, because opt-in as default is how it is in the US. Witness the annual privacy notices you get every year from your bank, credit card companies, stores where you have an account, offering you to opt out by calling or mailing, otherwise they will sell your information as much as they want. Ridiculous. I get >50 every year, a 6" high stack of trash. Like I am gonna deal with them each separately. It would take a week. The law should be you have your own privacy unless you affirmatively opt-out. Like that'll ever happen. I think it might be like that in the EU. If anyone knows for sure please post.