US privacy groups seek online ad-tracking opt-out

Online privacy activists are lobbying US telecoms regulators to create an internet advertising block list like the 'do not call' list that blocks telemarketing calls.

The 'do not track' list has been proposed by privacy and electronic rights groups the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) to the US consumer protection regulator the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Consumers would be able to sign up to the list so that their online activities would not be monitored by advertisers and used to target adverts to their specific tastes and habits.

"The collection, use, maintenance, and disclosure of personal and behavioural information for marketing purposes is a threat to consumers’ privacy rights," says the document sent to the FTC.

"The expansion of behavioural tracking and targeting of consumers through the internet and other networked devices greatly exacerbates the failures of the current inadequate structure for addressing consumer privacy interests," it said. "This expansion threatens privacy in new ways that consumers are largely unaware of."

The FTC has been holding a conference all week on the issues raised by tracking technology and advertising, and it was in order to influence those debates that the proposals have been published.

The list would allow consumers to opt out of being tracked by websites and advertised to on the basis of their online activities. Opponents have pointed out that consumers can do this on their own by blocking the cookies of sites that track their behaviour.

Randall Rothenberg is the chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the US trade body for internet advertising. In a blog posting written at the FTC's conference, he said: "Of what concern is it, if the data collected are anonymous and aggregated and used to create more relevant – and thus more user-friendly – advertising?"

In his speech to the conference he said: "Government must be prudent in ensuring that no regulation is drawn that would curtail interactive advertising’s potential to continue to support this extraordinary pattern of innovation and consumer benefit."

"Advertising is the economic foundation underlying the dynamism of the Interactive Era. With interactive media, it’s become a commonplace that marketing spend – one of the last redoubts of imprecision in American business – is becoming more accountable and more productive. This is possible because of the availability of mathematical and technological tools that enable the analysis of non-personally-identifiable data to detect patterns in peoples’ interests and consumption habits, and to allow the matching of advertisements to their needs."

The EFF and CDT proposal says that users should be provided with information held about them on request. It also proposes the establishment of a body to protect internet users, the Online Consumer Protection Advisory Committee.

"The advisory committee would hold regular meetings to evaluate changes in the advertising and consumer marketing sector, including but not limited to new technologies and other changes impacting consumers. The committee would review detailed audit reports from advertisers and industry, and would report problems and suggest solutions to the FTC. The committee would have the ability to hold hearings, and to report its findings to Congress, the FTC, and the public," it said.