Privacy Groups Call for Do-Not-Track List

A coalition of nine privacy and consumer groups have proposed a U.S. do-not-track list that would allow consumers to opt out of advertising efforts that track their movements online.

The groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the Consumer Federation of America and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, called for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to create a list of servers that track users online. Consumers could download the list and use security software to block sites that they don't want tracking them, under a proposal filed with the FTC Wednesday.

Right now, there's no easy way to opt out multiple tracking schemes, said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. "The consumer needs a clear and consumer-friendly opportunity to opt out of being tracked," he said. "We don't have that today. We have all kinds different approaches, and not-so-friendly interfaces."

The do-not-track list, similar in some ways to a do-not-call telemarketing list maintained by the FTC, would allow consumers to take control of their personal information online, Cooper said. While they would originally have to download the list and manually enter sites to block into security software, the privacy coalition expects that browser developers would create tools to automate that process, he said.

"This is a single step for consumers, and this is completely needed," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.

In addition to the do-not-track proposal, the FTC filing also called on the agency to require that companies collecting data disclose what data they hold to consumers who ask for it. The groups also called on the U.S. Congress to create an online consumer protection advisory committee that could work with the FTC on online privacy issues, and they created a new definition of personally identifiable information that includes things such as screen names and online behavior that can be used to pinpoint an individual.

The proposal also suggests consumers should receive contextual notice of tracking efforts, Dixon said. "When a consumer is online and clicking on things, they get the notice at the right time and the right place," she said.

The proposal comes a day before the FTC hosts a two-day workshop on behavioral advertising online. Representatives of the groups said they've had limited interaction with the FTC on the proposal so far, but they will talk about it at the workshop.

The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a cooperative of online marketing and analytics companies, since 2001 has distributed a cookie-based system that allows users to opt-out of behavioral advertising. But members of the privacy coalition say the NAI effort has largely not worked, partly because online users often mistrust cookies.

The NAI said a government-run program wouldn't work. The proposal would create a government-run list that would force computers to "call home to the government on a regular basis," the group said in a statement.

"This proposal for a government-run blacklist would break both the basic functionality and economic models of most, if not all, e-commerce and content-driven consumer Web sites," the group added. "It would also make much of the personalization available on the Web's most popular sites, enjoyed by millions, a thing of the past."

The do-not-track list would not block online advertisements, said Ari Schwartz, CDT's deputy director. Instead, the proposal would give consumers "more control" over who tracks them, he said.

Google, which has moved to acquire advertising giant DoubleClick, said in a statement it welcomed the privacy groups' proposal. "We need to review the proposal in more detail, but we welcome innovative ideas in this area and believe the industry as a whole should, too," a company spokeswoman said.

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