Privacy and consumer advocates are lambasting the online advertising industry's version of a do-not-track mechanism, slated to take worldwide effect today.
Today is the deadline for members of the Interactive Advertising Bureau to embrace use of a turquoise triangle with a lowercase letter "i" at its center, referred to as the Advertising Option Icon.
The IAB is calling on its members to display this innocuous icon on Web pages that are actually embedded with tracking cookies, Web beacons and other stealthy tools that help advertising networks track precisely where you go and with whom you associate on the Internet.
(The IAB is comprised of a who's who of the online advertising industry, including heavyweights Google, Microsoft and Facebook. To see the IAB's membership roster, click here.)
By clicking on the triangle, you can view a disclosure statement. And you should be able to click through to a Web page that gives you the choice to opt out of being tracked — at least in theory, says Carmen Balber, Washington, D.C., director of the non-profit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
In practice "all it does is give consumers who happen to find the blue triangle the option of clicking through to an opt-out page published by (IAB) members who choose to use the icon," says Balber.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says the turquoise triangle is "designed to be ignored" and gives only general information on how advertising and social networks track Internet users. Chester's organization registered this formal complaint with the FTC today.
Self-regulation, he says, remains skewed to getting users to opt in to being tracked "via using your social data, video and other free downloads and engaging online apps that increasingly work via stealth means."
Although a version of the turquoise icon (it was originally a square) was introduced in April 2010, only 11.3% of IAB members to date have been using it, according to this recent survey by the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University.
Yet, most people — some 84% of consumers who participated in a different survey by the University of Pennsylvania and University of California-Berkeley– object to being tracked online. And the more people find out about it, the less they like about it.
Even so, the IAB continues to push hard for President Obama to endorse self-regulation, including the turquoise triangle, in a forthcoming White House white paper, says Chester. And the group's most influential members, led by Google and Facebook, are also lobbying the Federal Trade Commission to do likewise in a privacy report due from the FTC before the end of this year, says Chester.
Balber says that the turquoise triangle is "a small step" that "does not give consumers meaningful control over tracking of their activities online."
Privacy and consumer groups want to see Congress pass a do-not-track law. The FTC late last year called for a do-not-track mechanism that would enable consumers to opt out of being tailed around the Web. The technology is simple and can be quickly added to any Web browser. Users would then be able to check a box configuring their browser to automatically notify every Web page they visit not to track them. The catch: The online advertising industry would have to universally honor do-not-track requests.
In May, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced do-not-track legislation that has gained the vocal backing of privacy and consumer advocacy groups.
The turquoise triangle "is another example of the failure of self-regulation to protect consumers from unwanted monitoring of every move they make on the Internet and their mobile devices," says Balber. "Action by Congress and the FTC to require a do-not-track-me option is crucial for consumers to gain control over their own information."