FTC Studying Do-Not-Track List for Online Ads

As the House inches forward on comprehensive privacy legislation that could have a major impact on online advertising, a Senate Committee met today to discuss online privacy issues. During the hearing, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon D. Leibowitz said multiple times that the agency is currently assessing the viability of a do-not-track list for online advertising.

“That’s, sort of, one thing we’re focusing on,” said Leibowitz regarding a do-not-track program. It would be akin to an online version of the do-not-call list, which allows consumers to remove their names from commercial telemarketing lists. Leibowitz described a possible do-not-track program as a “Universally easy-to-use mechanism for consumers [that] could be run through the FTC or could be run through some sort of private entity.” It is not clear how such a program would be implemented.

The FTC plans to unveil an online privacy-related report in the fall, and may have a conclusion about the viability of such a program at that time.

In the meantime, Leibowitz affirmed the FTC’s overall approval of the online ad industry’s self-regulatory efforts. He called the ad industry’s coalition program, currently in development, “very promising…a good sign.” Leibowitz also suggested that the online ad and media industries control their own fate when it comes to potential online privacy legislation. It lies “in the hands of the private sector. If they want to do a better job of ensuring [clear notice and choice]…. It’s in their hands to avoid legislation,” he said.

The ball is already rolling in the House. A House subcommittee discussed two privacy bills during a hearing last week, considering topics including FTC rulemaking authority, the ability for private individuals to sue alleged violators, data sharing, and safe harbor for corporations. A draft bill floated by Rep. Rick Boucher in May and another submitted officially by Rep. Bobby Rush, both call on the FTC to be the regulatory guide and enforcement authority associated with rules put into place by the potential privacy law.

It’s been two years since the Senate Commerce Committee held its “Privacy Implications of Online Advertising” hearing. Behavioral advertising was a hot topic during that hearing, and lawmakers then suggested that the FTC could be granted greater enforcement capabilities related to online privacy. The FTC has lobbied for more enforcement power, recently in conjunction with financial regulatory legislation, and has yet to be awarded the authority to bring civil fines against alleged violators of data privacy regulations.

Meanwhile Facebook unveiled a new Facebook Safety page yesterday, possibly in acknowledgement of the heightened government scrutiny and threat of privacy legislation. The company said the page would be “regularly updated with content, including tips from our Safety Advisory Board and other experts.” A recent post to the page noted, “Did you know that Facebook has a Safety Advisory Board comprised of five of the leading online safety organizations in the world?”

By creating the page, a complement to a site section it calls Safety Center, Facebook hopes to calm growing concerns about privacy of consumers using the social network. Facebook CTO Bret Taylor was among those testifying at today’s hearing. Representatives of Google, Apple, and AT&T also spoke.

During his testimony, Taylor mentioned new privacy controls offered by Facebook, and took care to remind lawmakers that they, too, benefit from Facebook, noting that over 300 Members of Congress use the site.

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