Privacy Groups Propose Do-Not-Track List

Demands Would Hinder Marketers' Behavioral-Targeting Practices Online

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NEW YORK ( -- Privacy advocates are expected to propose the creation of a do-not-track list, a sort of internet version of the Do Not Call Registry, at a news conference tomorrow.

In addition to the list, the proposal calls for a requirement that advertisers, as part of their online ads, instantaneously disclose details of what they intend to track. According to a media alert announcing the news conference, the groups behind the proposal include the Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others.

The news conference is scheduled to occur the day before the Federal Trade Commission convenes a two-day workshop devoted to ad targeting and internet privacy.

Use cookies to track
Typically, advertisers and online media sellers use web cookies to track and maintain information about online consumers. A cookie might be used to figure out what's in a user's shopping cart on a retail website or to record a user's login for a particular site so that user doesn't have to re-enter a login name and password every time they revisit the site. Cookies can also be used to track surfing behavior and offer up ads based on a user's surfing history.

Thanks to such behavioral-targeting technology, a user looking at a specific type of auto on a car-review site, for example, could be targeted with an ad for that particular make and model even when they move onto a general-interest site. Behavioral targeting tends to create more valuable inventory and be more effective, according to many advertisers and publishers familiar with the technology.

However, consumer-privacy advocates charge that collecting such information in order to target ads creates "a privacy imbalance that has deprived Americans of the right to control their personal information." Privacy advocates say current standards for collecting such data, such as the Network Advertising Initiative, don't do enough to safeguard consumers against the potential pitfalls of data collection, and that most consumers don't understand how such data is being used. Some studies show many consumers falsely equate the existence of a site's privacy policy with a promise that the site will not collect or use consumer data.

Opponents speak up
Opponents of a do-not-track proposal say current privacy standards already require that data not be personally identifiable -- it cannot be attached to a phone number, address, name or otherwise unique way to identify an individual. Creating a do-not-track list would, they say, run counter to that.

"It runs into the core issue of, we don't want to take the anonymity away. This isn't a consumer-led revolution like do-not-call was. ... This is an advocate looking for a cause issue," said Dave Morgan, chairman of Tacoda, a behavioral-targeting firm owned by AOL.

Online advertising, Mr. Morgan argues, underwrites content. In an ideal scenario, he said more targeted advertising would allow for fewer, more relevant ads on a website, creating a better experience for consumers.

Indeed, consumer surveys tend to indicate consumers find irrelevant advertising to be a source of irritation and most consumers prefer free, ad-supported content to paid, ad-free content.

According to a Forrester report on consumer attitudes toward advertising from November 2006, there are three main sources of advertising irritation to consumers: ads are too numerous, disruptive and irrelevant.

Separately, the Center for Digital Democracy, which was part of the complaint that led to the FTC hearings, is ready to file a revised complaint indicating that some of the information gleaned from tracking contributed to part of the sub-prime mortgage problems.
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