Recent legislation suggested by the Federal Trade Commission is aimed at protecting consumers from having their online activity monitored. The Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011, which would protect Internet users from having their activity tracked, stored, and shared with private companies for marketing and other purposes has been introduced to congress. A separate bill, the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, has also been introduced, requiring parental consent for minor’s information to be collected. As online privacy concerns increase, consumers are eager for more stringent guidelines.
How would it work?
Based on suggestions from an FTC privacy report released last December, the legislation aims to offer consumers more control over the monitoring of their online activities.
Although some companies have preemptively offered more user transparency, privacy controls, etc., formal regulations would make companies accountable for improper online activity tracking.
“Consumers have a right to know when and how their personal and sensitive information is being used online—and most importantly to be able to say ‘no thanks’ when companies seek to gather that information without their approval,” Senator John D. Rockefeller IV said in an introductory statement. “This bill will offer a simple, straightforward way for people to stop companies from tracking their every move on the Internet.”
The legislation would allow users to opt out of information collection through a mandatory browser-based mechanism. The FTC specifically designated five issues to be addressed in any proposed legislation:
- Do Not Track should be implemented universally, so consumers do not have to opt out from each site they visit.
- The opt-out mechanism must be easy to find and easy to use.
- Any choices offered should be persistent and not deleted if, for example, consumers clear their cookies or update their browsers.
- It must be effective and enforceable.
- It should allow consumers to opt out of being tracked for reasons other than commonly accepted uses, such as fraud prevention.
- If passed, the FTC would have 18 months to create the regulations for online companies.
What it means for consumers
Response to the proposed legislation has been mixed. Many consumers are eager for more information protection, as users feel online marketing and other information-gathering systems have become intrusive. In addition to advertising, it would also allow users to shield their browsing habits from other third parties, such as prospective employers or insurers.
According to FTC testimony, an effective Do Not Track system would go beyond simply opting consumers out of receiving targeted advertisements; it would opt them out of having their behavior tracked online — thus ensuring more consumer privacy and more company accountability.
However, online advertisers feel formal regulation is an unnecessary action and are worried that consumers who may be genuinely interested in products and services will no longer benefit from customized ads and marketing campaigns. Other skeptics question the efficacy of the Do Not Track system.
However, based on the same principle of the popular Do Not Call Registry, everyday users stand to benefit from the practice. As any participation would be optional, interested consumers could still allow tracking – satisfying advertisers – while those plagued by a barrage of ads and concerned about information disclosure, may be pleased.
As online privacy continues to be a hot-button issue in this digital age, many are eager for increased regulation. Currently, both proposed bills have been referred to subcommittees for review – and managing online privacy is still in the hands of the consumer.