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FTC mulls do-not-track list

Online advertisers are mulling the implications of a series of meetings last week between privacy advocacy groups and the Federal Trade Commission regarding the tracking of consumers’ online behavior.

A group of nine privacy organizations asked the Federal Trade Commission last week to provide consumer protections in the behavioral advertising sector.

The nine privacy organizations – the Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Activism, Public Information Research, Privacy Journal, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and World Privacy Forum – have asked the FTC to implement a do-not-track list that would protect consumers from having their online activities unknowingly tracked, stored and used by marketers and advertising networks.

The proposed do-not-track list includes requiring advertisers to add a pop-up, opt-out feature when their behavior is being tracked. The proposal letter also urges the FTC to make information about consumer privacy and choices available to all individuals, including those who have disabilities.

“The consumer needs a clear and easy opportunity to opt out when they are being tracked online, which we do not have today,” said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. “We need definitions that consumers can count on so that they can trust the system.”

AOL is one advertiser moving to self-regulation and has enhanced its opt-out process to include behavioral targeting. Last week, it announced that, through its recently acquired behavioral firm Tacoda, it has designed a technology for consumers to opt out of behavioral targeting. It has also planned a consumer-awareness program that will give consumers notice and information about behaviorally targeted advertising. When fully implemented, the program will deliver public service banner ads across AOL-owned and operated and third party networks.

“AOL would like to give users more information about how behavioral marketing is used, and the option to opt out of being tracked,” said Jules Polonetsky, chief privacy officer at AOL.

“Consumers are likely to appreciate ads that are relevant to them, but not with the process of behavioral marketing being transparent,” Polonetsky continued. “When people are in control of the tools, they are more comfortable letting marketers use them.”

Banner ads with notice about behavior are already appearing on sites in the Tacoda network. When fully implemented by the end of this year, the program will extend to AOL’s entire display advertising network by the end of 2007. The network includes AOL -owned and operated sites, as well as Advertising.com’s and Tacoda’s third-party networks.

AOL is also exploring opportunities to license this technology on a royalty-free basis for use exclusively in consumer privacy protection programs.

The do-not-track list, which would function similarly to the national Do-Not-Call list, is one of several consumer privacy protections the group asked the FTC to adopt as part of a broad effort to uphold privacy. The groups proposed these recommendations in a letter to the FTC in advance of its two-day town hall Ehavioral Advertising: Tracking, Targeting, and Technology session, which began this past Thursday.

The list would require advertisers that use tracking technologies on consumers’ computers to register with the FTC all domain names of the servers involved in the tracking. Browser applications developers were encouraged to create plug-ins that will allow users to download the do-not-track list onto their computers.

The letter also recommends the adoption of a new definition of “personally identifiable information” to be updated for the current state of the Internet and to provide disclosures to consumers about behavioral tracking as new technologies are developed.

There is currently a cookie available from the FTC that consumers can download to see individual sites’ tracking habits.

“The problem is that consumers have to go to a lot of different places to find out who has their information, and cookies are not static and can disappear,” said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

In addition, the letter urges independent auditing of advertisers using behavioral tracking and to provide consumers with access to personally identifiable information collected about them by companies engaged in behavioral tracking. Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said that this addresses consumers’ problems with being tracked and lets them opt in or out.

The groups also aim to prohibit advertisers from collecting and using personally identifiable information about health, financial activities and other sensitive data, and hope to establish a national online consumer protection advisory committee.

“This information includes name, address, social security number, IP address or any other personally identifiable information,” Dixon said.

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