Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft employ behavioral targeting, in which cookies collect information on users’ Web browsing habits, to better tailor online ad campaigns for Web surfing consumers. This practice doesn’t sit well with consumer and privacy advocates, which urged Congress to crack down on behavioral targeting and asked the Federal Trade Commission to set up a registry to help users opt out of such practices.
Consumer advocates concerned about what they see as the erosion of Web surfers’ online privacy urged Congress Sept. 1 to crack down on behavioral targeting and asked the Federal Trade Commission to set up a registry to let users opt out of data collection.
Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft employ behavioral targeting, in which cookies collect information on users’ Web browsing habits, to better tailor online ad campaigns for Web surfing consumers. While potentially lucrative for businesses that practice it, the practice doesn’t sit well with consumer and privacy advocates, which are concerned with companies’ brazen approach to collecting and using consumer data without governance.
Ten non-profit groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked Congress to institute several provisions for consumer privacy, including that Web sites and ad networks not collect and use behavioral data after 24 hours without "affirmative consent" from Web users and that behavioral data should not be retained for more than 3 months.
The group also requested that sensitive data, such as health information, not be collected for tracking and that no behavioral data should be collected from children and adolescents under 18. The parties are also asking that that behavioral data must not be used to discriminate against a person.
The coalition also asked that the FTC set up a Behavioral Tracker Registry, similar to that FTC’s Do Not Call list preventing telemarketers from calling users on the list. The new registry would allow users to sign up at a Web site to be removed from all data collection.
The coalition sent letters outlining their concerns and recommendations for consumer information privacy legislation to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its commerce and communications subcommittees, and held a press conference call with media today to discuss its concerns.
The coalition’s conditions and press conference call was a preemptive strike; Congressman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has said the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet will consider drafting legislation on consumer privacy in the online marketplace this fall.
Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, said on the conference call that in addition to the registry the group wants the FTC to define sensitive information as any data about health, finances, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and political activity.
"The current definitions are too narrow and they’re weak to the point of being completely unworkable and ineffective," Dixon said, pointing to efforts from the Network Advertising Initiative and the Interactive Advertising Bureau. "We think that the job belongs with a neutral party and we think the best party for that job is the Federal Trade Commission."
She also argued that the Internet advertising will not grind to a halt if Web sites allow users to opt-in to it; this would mean Web surfers would have to click a button on a Web site to allow that site to serve them ads based on their user behavior. Today, Web sites let users click a button to opt out of letting Web sites store information about their Web surfing.
Dixon said Web sites accepting sensitive info should be allowed to use this info for a full day before disgorging it. If a site wishes to keep it longer, it will have to get "affirmative consent" from a user. Though the group declined to offer an idea for a mechanism for this, this would likely be an opt-in button. However, online advertisers have balked at such suggestions because the track record for users opting in to anything, let alone tools that target or track them, is poor.
Indeed, a source for a company that practices behavioral tracking told eWEEK they believe offering users the option to opt out of allowing the company to track their Web browsing habits for ad purposes works fine.
Christine Chen, a spokesperson for leading search engine Google, which began using behavioral tracking on the Web sites of its AdSense partners in March, told eWEEK Google welcomes the dialogue.
Consumer Watchdog advocate John Simpson said the group is stepping in because "self-regulation does not work and I think the folks on the Hill are finally getting that."