FTC Chief Says Consumers Should Control Their Data on Social Networks

Q&A: Commission Watching Carefully as Deadline for Ad Industry Self-Regulation Looms

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

David Vladeck, head of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection has been busier than usual. The commission just embarked upon a wide-ranging probe of Google's business practices that one Washington insider called the "big one."

David Vladeck

Mr. Vladeck spoke with Ad Age about the various issues concerning consumers and digital media just ahead of his presentation at the Evidon Empower conference in New York today.

Ad Age : Let's talk about the FTC's investigation into Google. How's it going?

David Vladeck: I can't comment on it other than to say that Google has confirmed that there is an investigation.

Ad Age : Can you tell us the scope of the investigation? What will you be looking at?

Mr. Vladeck: I can't comment on that .

[One aspect to the case, according to insiders, is the European Union's investigation into Google's alleged anti-competitive practices, which include claims that the search titan prevented publishers who use Google's AdSense to place ads on its sites from accepting advertising from competing search engines.]

Ad Age : Let's switch topics: Facebook. There's been growing tension between Google and Facebook. Users have had trouble porting over their Facebook data to Google's latest social network, Google+. Is Facebook hurting consumers here?

Mr. Vladeck: I can't comment specifically on Facebook. But I can talk about portability, which is an issue we addressed very briefly in our 2008 privacy report. We think generally people ought to have control over their data. If you wanted to leave a social-networking site at some point, you ought to be able to. If you want to delete your profile, you should be able to, unless the site has a legitimate business interest in maintaining it.

Ad Age : By portability you mean the ability for someone to leave, say, social-networking site X and bring that data to social-networking site Y.

Mr. Vladeck: We want people who take the time and effort investing in populating a site. ... It would be to the consumer's benefit, if he or she thinks there's a better social-networking site that better meets their needs, to be able to move it. But this is not something we've suggested is required by law.

Ad Age : Regarding social networks, who owns your profile?

Mr. Vladeck: There isn't a clear-cut legal answer. Ownership question is one that has bedeviled legal scholars. The real question is , "Who has control over that information?" Our view has always been that consumers ought to have control over that kind of personal information and share it with whom they want.

Ad Age : Who, then, owns the connection between users on a social network?

Mr. Vladeck: It's a big debate under the rubric of the "right to be forgotten." Some in the European community argue that if I want to delete information about me on a social-networking site, I should be able to delete information that I post, as well as information someone else posts about me -- such as if someone takes a picture of me ... that I would prefer to see deleted. But our legal regime in the U.S. is more complicated, because of our system of laws that says Ed has a right to post a picture of David, even if David is unhappy with that picture. The absence of any sort of First Amendment or broader concept has made that debate easier in Europe than it would be here in U.S.

Ad Age : How is the ad industry's self-regulatory privacy program fared so far? What's your assessment?

Mr. Vladeck: Last time I looked, we got another five or six weeks till their deadline. People are watching.

Ad Age : To what degree does Sen. Rockefeller's Do Not Track bill complement Sens. Kerry and McCain's broader privacy bill?

Mr. Vladeck: Kerry-McCain sees baselines and creates a real incentive for companies to engage in robust self-regulation, so we're talking about policy objectives. Do Not Track is a means to an end. I think Sen. Kerry recognizes this, and in some sense, they're quite complementary.

Ad Age : When the five or six weeks are up, how will you evaluate the industry's privacy program?

Mr. Vladeck: It's nothing you haven't already heard. We have laid out five criteria: easy-to-use and understand; effective and enforceable; it's got to be universal -- you can't have to go company by company or ad network by ad network. There's got to be some way to eliminate the burden on consumers. And also collection and use is an issue as well as persistence -- every time you clear your browser, you shouldn't have to do that again.

But the thing we've had the most extended dialogue with the industry about is the difference between collection and use. For us, for Do Not Track to be effective, it's got to address the collection of data and not just the use. We've been harping on this issue since 2009. Other than the delivery of targeted ads, what are you collecting data on? Consumers have to have broader right to opt out of being tracked. I know there's been a bit of a semantic argument between us and the ad industry about collection and use.

Ad Age : Will you be looking for a certain percentage of people opting out to deem the program effective?

Mr. Vladeck: In our view, the click-thorough rates are reassuring. People are clicking through. It's not like we have a preconception about what the right opt-our rate is . The key question is , "Are people clicking through, reading this stuff and making informed choices about what they want?" To us that 's more critical.

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CORRECTION: The original headline to the story mis-characterized Mr. Vladeck's remarks. He took no position on the question of ownership of profiles on social sites. He does, however, believe consumers should have control over their personal information on social sites, as the story indicated.

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