A Push for Web Version of the Do-Not-Call List

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An Ad App You'll Love (and Privacy Groups Will Hate)

Attention, marketers: That long-promised ability to finely tune your online ad messages and target people based on their specific interests and expressed preferences is under attack. A group of privacy experts wants to create a national do-not-track list, a sort of internet version of the Do Not Call Registry.

The proposal is a sign of just how intense the ad-targeting criticism from consumer-privacy advocates has become -- but there are several reasons, including a comparative lack of pressure from Congress, that differentiate this cause from the do-not-call uproar of five years ago.

Here's how it would work: Ad networks and others who use cookie-based tracking technology would be required to submit lists of their servers to a central regulatory body. Users who didn't want to be tracked could then, ideally, download a browser plug-in that would identify those server logs and disallow cookies from them, said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Few up in arms
But the groundswell of public concern that surrounded the Do Not Call Registry is absent this time, as is most of the congressional pressure. Additionally, several states already had enacted do-not-call lists at the time the federal regulation was passed; none has enacted an internet equivalent.

The proposal came last week, a day before the Federal Trade Commission convened a two-day workshop devoted to ad targeting and internet privacy, where, incidentally, few marketers or agencies were present. The panelists were mostly privacy advocates and consumers groups, ad networks, trade associations such as the Online Publishers Association and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, internet pundits, and FTC staff.

The FTC looked at profiling and targeting in 1999, said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, but since then, "the market and the practices have expanded dramatically."

FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz pointed to one survey suggesting that few consumers can understand privacy policies written in legalese. He also cited some indications that teens with MySpace profiles are being targeted with ads for R-rated movies. Yet he also said competition is prompting Microsoft, Yahoo and Google to promise to dump tracking profiles in as little as 13 months.

Mr. Leibowitz's concern regarding the public's ignorance about privacy policies echoes that of consumer advocates. There's not apathy toward privacy issues, they say, but rather a misunderstanding of how consumers' data are collected and used.

Marketing trade groups struck back with claims that consumers prefer targeted ads and free, ad-supported content -- a byproduct of ad targeting.

Steven K. Berry, exec VP-government affairs and corporate responsibility at the Direct Marketing Association, called a do-not-track list a solution in search of a problem. "Such a list would significantly undermine the successful business model of the internet by limiting benefits to consumers, stifling innovation and eliminating the valuable and effective marketing-supported content," he said in a statement. "It is overwhelmingly clear that the great majority of Americans embrace relevant marketing."
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