FTC Issues Privacy Report, Calls for Do-Not-Track Tool

The Federal Trade Commission continues to support self-regulatory approach, but signals to Web companies that if do-not-track is not implemented by year's end, momentum for law authorizing new privacy rules could build in Congress.

By Kenneth Corbin
Mon, March 26, 2012

CIO — The Federal Trade Commission on Monday released the long-awaited final version of its report on online consumer privacy, issuing a set of recommendations broadly consistent with an earlier draft, including a call for a do-not-track tool that would enable users to opt out of data collection and targeted marketing programs on the Web.

With its latest report, the FTC continues to prevail on members of the Internet and advertising industries to develop meaningful, broadly adopted codes of conduct to provide consumers with more insight about what information is being collected and how it is being used, as well as tools to limit access to that data such as the do-not-track option that the leading browser makers have endorsed.

The report presses three themes that could be described as best practices for businesses operating on the Internet:

  1. Privacy should be incorporated into new products and services by design.
  2. Businesses should provide consumers with simplified ways to control their information.
  3. Corporate data collection practices should be transparent to the public.

At a news conference announcing the new report, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz praised the efforts that industry stakeholders have made in crafting new privacy tools and policies, and reiterated his hope that a self-regulatory approach can achieve meaningful consumer safeguards.

"We are demanding more and better protections for consumers and consumer privacy not because industry is ignoring the issue. In fact, the best companies already follow the privacy principles laid out in our report," Leibowitz said. "And in the last year, online advertisers, major browser companies and the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet standards-setting group, have all made great strides toward putting in place the foundation of a do-not-track system."

In that spirit, Leibowitz said that the FTC will not initiate any independent rulemaking proceedings concerning privacy, save for the update to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act that is already underway.

But he also warned Web companies and their trade associations that the window for self-regulation may be closing. Leibowitz said that he is hopeful that do-not-track can be implemented without a government mandate, but if the industry stakeholders are unable to achieve that goal by the end of the year, they could face the prospect of broad, bipartisan support for tough privacy legislation in the next session of Congress.

"I'm very hopeful that do not track can be done without legislation," Leibowitz said. "But if it can't be, I suspect it will be done with legislation. And I think in many ways companies would be -- they recognize they'd be wise to avoid that particularly when they're supportive of it."

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