Consumer Advocates Ask FTC to Help Curb Behavioral Targeting Tactics

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-09-01

Consumer Advocates Ask FTC to Help Curb Behavioral Targeting Tactics

Consumer advocates concerned about what they see as the erosion of Web surfers' online privacy urged Congress on Sept. 1 to crack down on behavioral targeting and asked the Federal Trade Commission to set up a registry to let users opt out of data collection.

Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft employ behavioral targeting, in which cookies collect information on users' Web browsing habits, to better tailor online ad campaigns for Web-surfing consumers. While potentially lucrative for businesses that practice it, the practice doesn't sit well with consumer and privacy advocates, which are concerned about companies collecting and using consumer data without governance.

10 nonprofit groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked Congress to institute several provisions for consumer privacy, such as that Websites and ad networks not collect and use behavioral data after 24 hours without "affirmative consent" from Web users and that behavioral data not be retained for more than three months.

The group also requested that sensitive data, such as health information, not be collected for tracking and that no behavioral data be collected from children and adolescents under 18. The parties are also asking that it be made clear that behavioral data must not be used to discriminate against a person.

The coalition also asked that the FTC set up a Behavioral Tracker Registry, similar to the FTC's Do Not Call list preventing telemarketers from calling those on the list. The new registry would allow Web users to sign up at a Website to be removed from all data collection.

The coalition sent letters outlining their concerns and recommendations for consumer information privacy legislation to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its commerce and communications subcommittees, and held a press conference call with media Sept. 1 to discuss its concerns.

The coalition's conditions and press conference call constituted a preemptive strike; Congressman Rick Boucher has said the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet will consider drafting legislation on consumer privacy in the online marketplace in fall 2009.

Specific Privacy Demands


Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, said on the conference call that in addition to the registry the group wants the FTC to define sensitive information as any data about health, finances, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and political activity.

"The current definitions are too narrow and they're weak to the point of being completely unworkable and ineffective," Dixon said, pointing to efforts from the Network Advertising Initiative and the Interactive Advertising Bureau. "We think that the job belongs with a neutral party and we think the best party for that job is the Federal Trade Commission."

She also argued that Internet advertising will not grind to a halt if Websites allow users to opt into it; this would mean Web surfers would have to click a button on a Website to allow that site to serve them ads based on their user behavior. Today, Websites let users click a button to opt out of letting Websites store information about their Web use.

Dixon said Websites accepting sensitive information should be allowed to use this information for a full day before disgorging it. If a site wishes to keep the information longer, it will have to get "affirmative consent" from a user. Though the group declined to offer an idea for a mechanism for this, this would likely be an opt-in button.

However, online advertisers have balked at such suggestions because the track record for users opting into anything, let alone tools that target or track them, is poor.

A source for a company that practices behavioral tracking told eWEEK the company believes offering users the option to opt out of allowing the company to track their Web browsing habits for ad purposes works fine.

Christine Chen, a spokesperson for leading search engine Google, which began using behavioral tracking on the Websites of its AdSense partners in March, told eWEEK that Google welcomes the dialogue.

Consumer Watchdog advocate John Simpson said the group is stepping in because "self-regulation does not work and I think the folks on the Hill are finally getting that."

The coalition's full list of principles for Congress are here, (PDF) but readers can also see a two-page primer here. (PDF)

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