The Commerce Department believes industry practices to protect Internet users' privacy, such as the creation of a Do Not Track online tool, should be voluntary but enforceable, a department official said on Wednesday.
"With or without legislation, we will have to upgrade the role of voluntary but enforceable codes of conduct," said Daniel J. Weitzner, associate administrator for policy analysis at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — a Commerce agency that shapes the Obama administration's policy on the Internet. Do Not Track, a system patterned after the Do Not Call registry, would alert advertisers and other entities that collect data on a Web user's behavior that the person does not want to be monitored online.
Weitzner spoke at a conference on the future of online consumer protections that the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog hosted. Marketers have created a lucrative business by collecting detailed data on Internet users' behaviors and backgrounds, including estimates of income and family composition, to compile consumer profiles for corporate clients.
Do Not Track "is the perfect illustration for a robust stakeholder process to develop voluntary but enforceable codes of conduct," Weitzner added.
Separately, the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday released an online privacy framework intended to inform policymakers and Congress that, among other things, the agency recommends that a Do Not Track option be available on Internet browsers. "Many of us on the commission believe that it's time for a Do Not Track mechanism with respect to third-party ads; that is, consumers should be able to choose whether to allow the collection of data about online searching and browsing," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in prepared remarks. "A Do Not Track browser setting would serve as an easy, one-stop shop for consumers to express their choices, rather than on a company-by-company or industry-by-industry basis."
On Thursday, a House subcommittee is scheduled to evaluate Do Not Track legislation that would mandate that companies comply with users' requests. Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is expected to testify that such requirements would hurt the Internet ecosystem, because online advertising allows Web services companies to offer users free content. He also plans to argue the mechanism would be costly to implement, would be hard to enforce and would result in marketers bombarding consumers with less-relevant ads, according to ITIF officials.
Commerce plans to publish its own policy paper shortly, but Weitzner was tight-lipped on its specifics.
"We think our report is important in enabling the administration to take a first concrete step into the privacy dialogue… and it will inform legislation in the end," he said.
Weitzner would say only that the paper will address the need to maintain a balance between empowering users and preserving flexibility to keep up with the Internet's evolution.
The feasibility of a Do Not Track option highlights this challenge, according to Weitzner. The easy part of creating the feature is the technology. Web services companies have the engineering capability to install such alerts. "What the signal actually means and who actually is obliged to respond to it," he said, "is a much more complicated task."