FTC pitches do-not-track system to let consumers opt out of Web data collection

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 8:15 PM

The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday recommended creating a do-not-track system that would prevent Web sites from collecting unauthorized consumer data, part of a widely anticipated agency report on improving Internet privacy.

The FTC report, aimed at helping policymakers and lawmakers craft privacy rules, also calls for Web sites to disclose more about the information they gather on users, including what has been collected, how it is used and how long it is stored. It also recommended that companies offer users more choices for opting out of data collection schemes.

Regulators and lawmakers are focusing more closely on online privacy after a spate of high-profile data breaches, including Google's recent admission that it collected personal data from Wi-Fi networks in several countries.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a news conference Wednesday that the current, largely unregulated approach to Internet privacy has fallen short. That approach is favored by advertisers, social-network operators and Web search companies.

The agency's recommendations - passed unanimously by the five-member commission - seek to balance the concerns of Web advertisers, media companies and retailers that have devised business models around tailored advertisements based on profiles of users. The agency is taking comments on its report until Jan. 31.

"The FTC wants to help ensure that the growing, changing, thriving information marketplace is built on a framework that promotes privacy, transparency, business innovation and consumer choice," Leibowitz said. "We believe that's what most Americans want as well."

The idea for a do-not-track mechanism borrows from the agency's popular Do Not Call list, a registry of phone numbers that are off-limits to telemarketers, but it would be implemented differently.

Rather than submitting their names on a centrally maintained list, consumers would use a tool on their Web browsers to signal that they do not wish to be tracked or to receive targeted advertising. Leibowitz said Google, Microsoft and Mozilla have all experimented with do-not-track technology on their browsers.

The agency said the do-not-track mechanism could be created through legislation or an effort initiated by the Web industry and enforced by the FTC.

Soon after the report's release, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said he would introduce privacy legislation that would give the FTC more rulemaking authority to carry out some of its recommendations. As an enforcement agency, the FTC has limited ability to issue new rules.

"We can take a hybrid approach to enforcement where the most critical rights are protected through rulemaking while others may be subject to a complaint and adjudication process," Kerry said.

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