With the debate over consumer privacy in interactive advertising and media heating up in Washington, regulators and politicians are focusing new attention on building privacy tools into web browsers.
Recently two of the leading internet browsers, Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 and Mozilla Firefox, introduced new header flag tools to help further our collective goals of increased consumer transparency and choice. These technological features that allow consumers to "turn off tracking" are nice enablers, but today they are not able to deliver consumers with the transparency and meaningful choice that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called for.
These developments are a move in the right direction but they represent merely one step in a marathon effort to continue meeting consumers' privacy expectations. These new tools are a result of thoughtful and meaningful conversations that have been happening in the industry for more than two years. They are not the end-all solution, however, nor are they the final answer to the FTC question on how we protect consumer privacy online.
We as an industry don't believe the responsibility to provide such an answer should fall to browser companies. Our goal now is to help make these tools and technological features work within the Self-Regulatory Program that the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) has developed.
As Congress huddles before its next hearing, and browser companies continue to push forward with innovative new features, perhaps it's time we, the DAA, offer our take on where we are and where we're headed.
Self-regulation is here and it's serious
In the last year, the DAA has developed a unified and enforceable system for transparency and meaningful consumer choice that has the support of more than 5,000 U.S. companies. This program has deployed a widely recognized symbol (the Advertising Option Icon), a universal opt-out mechanism, and strong, independent enforcement programs that can monitor the entire ecosystem. This self-regulatory coalition and mechanism has been praised repeatedly and specifically by the FTC. At the 4A's Transformation 2011 conference in March, the director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, David Vladeck, used powerful words to describe the success of the program such as "encouraging," "promising," an "important step forward," and "meaningful choice."
The landscape, however, is evolving every day. As such, we as an industry are committed to continually advancing and strengthening self-regulation as technology progresses and consumers' expectations change. To this end, we commend companies such as Mozilla, the creator of the Firefox browser, that have taken the initiative to make these tools available to consumers. The task at hand now is to examine these new browser technologies and determine the most effective way to integrate them into our existing Self-Regulatory Program. To do that, we are hereby commencing an inclusive process to analyze the technical and legal feasibility of recognizing browser header flags, without undermining the privacy advancements that we have already delivered to the American public.
Defining the problem and the solution
Our Self-Regulatory Program was formed in direct response to calls from the FTC for increased transparency for consumers and an easy-to-use opt-out solution. Both have been implemented. We focused on these issues first and have successfully created a program that provides transparency from both publishers and third parties. Google and Yahoo recently went live with our icon across their networks, and publishers such as CNN.com, MTV.com, and pcmag.com are actively using the icon as well.
While we applaud the work of browsers for advancing the conversation on privacy and creating these tools, any work to establish technical standards to enable a Do Not Track mechanism is premature. Even the FTC conceded in recent remarks that it doesn't have workable definitions of "tracking," "collection," and "first-party marketing." Therefore, it is impossible to write and implement Do Not Track technical solutions until these policy standards are established.
We've also developed a 50-page set of Online Behavioral Advertising Principles that define what it means to provide notice and choice to consumers. It can be found at aboutads.info. These Principles have the support of the leading media trade associations and companies, and they represent the broadest advertising Self-Regulatory Program ever created.
Preparing to take the next step
Online privacy and self-regulation isn't as easy as flipping a switch. It requires understanding, commitment and buy-in from every company that touches the online advertising ecosystem. Without that, Do Not Track and self-regulation will never deliver on what the FTC has called for. The DAA is the only organization that works directly with, and is informed by, a majority of these companies and ALL of the major players. Without their support, a browser header solution is a hollow tool that will likely result in more consumer confusion.
While we have made incredible progress, we understand this is the beginning of long a process that will develop and expand over time. We also understand moving forward in a unified manner is paramount. Splintering our industry's efforts by chasing the newest trend in consumer privacy would be a major step back.