'Do Not Track' Registry Proposed for Web Use

By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Privacy, consumer and technology groups yesterday proposed the creation of a Do Not Track list similar to the Do Not Call phone list, allowing people to prevent companies from tracking which Web sites they visit.

This proposal comes as large Internet companies are looking to increase the tracking of users' online behavior to tailor ads to their interests. Nine groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Consumer Federation of America and the World Privacy Forum, submitted the proposal to the Federal Trade Commission ahead of a two-day conference on behavioral advertising.

The Do Not Track list is modeled after the popular Do Not Call registry maintained by the FTC. Since 2003, telemarketers have been barred from calling numbers submitted to the list, which has about 145 million numbers.

"Consumers obviously know the Do Not Call list and have reacted well to it," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. "As an analogy it helps socialize an important concern and idea."

The FTC does not regulate ad networks' privacy policies, but a group called the Network Advertising Initiative, comprising 11 advertiser members, said the industry polices itself. People can opt out of advertising by downloading a small piece of data known as a cookie.

Privacy advocates say self-regulation has not been sufficient for several reasons. First, not all behavioral advertising firms join the advertising initiative. Pam Dixon, executive director at the World Privacy Forum, said only about 25 percent of advertising networks are members. Second, the opt-out process is technical and requires a separate download for each ad network, so few customers use it.

Finally, Web-tracking technology has advanced since the initiative was created, so its members have developed new ways of tracking behavior even if a user has downloaded the cookie. Yesterday, AOL, announced an improvement to this system, but it still drew criticism from privacy groups who say the program relies on technology that allows for loopholes.

AOL defended the technology and its modification.

"Most of this behavioral advertising business model is built around cookie information. I don't know of anybody who's using a get-around technology, and if they are, they really ought to be called out," said Jules Polonetsky, AOL chief privacy officer.

The advertising initiative, for its part, argues that a Do Not Track registry isn't necessary, saying that the voluntary program is user-friendly and most unwanted ads can be avoided using the cookie technology.

"We think this proposal is redundant and overwrought," said J. Trevor Hughes, NAI executive director.

Making Do Not Track technology work would involve substantial technical challenges, according to Richard M. Smith, a Boston-based Internet consultant and privacy advocate.

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