The FTC has not endorsed a do-not-track mechanism for online advertising and data collection, nor has such a concept been properly vetted for feasibility, according to FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch.
In an opinion piece published by AdAge today, the commissioner wrote, "The concept of do-not-track has not been endorsed by the commission or, in my judgment, even properly vetted yet... Indeed, far from endorsing the staff's do-not-track proposal, one other commissioner has called it premature."
Despite that, Rosch described a number of limitations associated with the do-not-track proposal, in his view, including the technical feasibility of such an approach around which doubts have already been voiced.
"In my concurring statement to the preliminary staff report, I said I would support a do-not-track mechanism if it were ‘technically feasible." By that I meant that it needed to have a number of attributes that had not yet been demonstrated. That is still true, in my judgment," he wrote. http://www.ftc.gov/os/2010/12/101201privacyreport.pdf
The FTC's own director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, David Vladeck, told House lawmakers in December, "We've learned from our technologists that do-not-track is a feasible technology... Browsers could be programmed to send a do-not-track signal as users browse the Internet."
According to Rosch, the proposals outlined in the FTC's preliminary report could have major implications on the U.S. Internet economy, as voiced repeatedly by industry itself since December. "Not only could consumers potentially lose access to free content on specific websites, I fear that the aggregate effect of widespread adoption by consumers of overly broad do-not-track mechanisms might be the reduction of free content, free applications and innovation across the entire Internet economy," he stated in the Ad Age column.
In addition, Rosch addressed the underlying issue of what exactly "tracking" involves, both from a consumer perspective and that of the digital media industry itself, suggesting the "do-not-track" label on such a tool could be potentially misleading. "There is no consensus on what 'tracking' means. In fact, I don't know precisely what it means," he wrote.
In a December interview with ClickZ News, FTC chief technologist Edward Felten said, "The system as currently envisioned would not apply to ordinary first party tracking or to a first party's use of a service provider for website analytics, assuming the service provider makes no additional use of the collected data. It is important to note that what the FTC is discussing is a consumer choice mechanism, not a blanket ban on tracking."
Finally, capping what appears to be a pro-business approach to the matter, Rosch suggested the inappropriate application of a do-not-track mechanism could jeopardize competition in the online advertising space. For example, companies that rely less on data-driven advertising might be at an unfair advantage. An example of such a company might be Google, which generates the majority of its revenue selling contextually and keyword-based relevant ads based on search terms, rather than user data.
Follow ClickZ's ongoing coverage of the do-not-track proposal here.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.
March 19, 2014