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Do-not-track proposal could kill web advertising

Lawmakers and companies question FTC idea

A universal online do-not-track tool may hurt the internet advertising industry and may be difficult to implement, critics of a US Federal Trade Commission proposal to create such a mechanism said on Thursday.

A universal do-not-track tool, endorsed by the FTC in a report focused on online privacy released on Wednesday, could make online targeted advertising less effective and could slow the growth of e-commerce, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise stagnant US economy, said Representative Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, during a hearing of the Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

Consumers would likely rather get relevant ads than irrelevant ones, he said. "The question is, is the government really the entity to make that decision?" Whitfield added. "Would an [online] advertising model be sustainable in the absence of marketers' ability to track?"

Web users with a do-not-track tool enabled may see a significantly different Internet than ones that accept tracking, added Joseph Pasqua, vice president of research at security software vendor Symantec. "A user with the no-track option enabled may be fed websites with limited content, while other users without the option set would see a richer web page and have a more robust browsing experience," he said in his subcommittee testimony.

Do-not-track could potentially cover more online activities than advertising, Pasqua added. "Does it extend to any type of tracking?" he asked. "What about tracking in order to enforce licensing restrictions? Is it OK to track usage patterns anonymously so that we can improve the usability of our product?"

The FCT's endorsement of a do-not-track tool did not advocate legislation to implement the proposal, instead saying it could happen either through legislation or through an industry-led effort. There's no current legislation in Congress to create a do-not-track tool.

Targeted advertising helps pay for free web content, said Joan Gillman, executive vice president at Time Warner Cable, a broadband provider.

"Depending on how do-not-track is implemented ... it could be a blunt instrument that upsets consumer expectations and negatively affects advertiser-supported content businesses -- even as those industries try to figure out how to create viable online business models," she said. "Do-not-track could hinder job creation within the advertising industry and by websites that rely on advertising revenue."

The idea of a national do-not-track list, modelled after a national do-not-call registry targeting telemarketers, has been floating around since late 2007, when a coalition of privacy groups called for one. Instead of a list, a do-not-track tool may be easier to implement in browsers, FTC officials said Wednesday.

Other witnesses said it's time for a universal do-not-track tool. Consumers are being tracked "everywhere they go online," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

"If someone were following you around in the physical world - tailing you and making note of everywhere you go, what you read, what you eat, who you see, what music you listen to, what you buy, what you watch - you might find this disturbing," Grant said. "The argument that, 'We don't know your name, just the make and model of your car, and we're only going to use this information to send ads to you,' might not assuage your concerns about being stalked."

Many web users don't realise the extent of online tracking, added David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. Several companies have created online tools allowing consumers to control the number of targeted ads they receive, but a universal do-not-track tool is not available, he said. Many consumers believe they are opting out of tracking when they're only opting out of targeted ads, he said.

The FTC envisions a tool that would allow consumers to opt out of some tracking and accept other tracking.

A do-not-track tool could be universal and persistent, Vladeck said. "We believe there's strong support for a do-not-track mechanism," he said. "Once implemented, it would put consumers back in control of their data."


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