With privacy concerns surrounding the use of personal information on the Web heating up, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Congress seem to be headed down the road of implementing legislation that would regulate how advertisers are permitted to track users online. In February, a bill was introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier of California that would allow Web users to prevent advertisers from recording their online behavior for marketing purposes—along the lines of the Do Not Call Registry that was launched, to much fanfare, in 2003. Last week it was one-upped by John Kerry and John McCain's "Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights."
Although the future and final shape of any "Do Not Track" legislation remain unclear, the effects on the online advertising world—and how consumers browse and experience the Web—are likely to be significant and far-reaching. Such legislation would have the potential to alter the online experience in some unintended—and not altogether positive—ways. Though the promise of greater privacy may sound alluring in the abstract, in practical terms consumers have a lot more to lose if online tracking disappears.
The Industry's Response
In parallel with the push for legislation, the FTC has urged ad networks and software providers to work on their own solutions outside of any eventual regulatory framework. Across the industry, major players from advertising bodies to software providers have already felt the pressure to respond and have taken significant steps in this direction:
- Trade associations, including the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) have made efforts to increase the transparency of what is being tracked with ads, and have made it possible for users to opt out of online tracking through, for instance, the Digital Advertising Alliance program.
- Google Chrome has implemented a "Keep My Opt-Outs" extension, which "remembers all of the tracking opt-outs a user has made, even if cookies are deleted."
- Mozilla Firefox has added a do-not-track option, which, when enabled, adds an HTTP header to sites it visits, saying the user does not want to be tracked. The solution requires ad networks to acknowledge the request. If they fail to do so, the option does nothing.
- Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 has added a feature called the "Tracking Protection List," which allows users to block tracking from specific sites of their choosing. Additionally, IE9 has offered the same do-not-track option being used by Mozilla.
Differing approaches, to be sure. But the fact that so many major players across the online landscape have responded to the call for stricter privacy protection demonstrates that the e-marketing industry at least understands and is prepared to address the threat, independent of regulatory or legislative mandates.