Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz is urging compromise in an intensifying debate over creating a “do-not-track” standard that would give consumers a choice about being monitored online.
Leibowitz made the comments in an interview on Tuesday ahead of this week’s meeting of a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, aimed at developing a do-not-track standard. In recent weeks, some of the groups involved in the process have been seeking outside help to help break a logjam over how far a do-not-track standard should go.
“It would be helpful for everyone to take a step toward the center here,” Leibowitz told National Journal. “I’m still optimistic we’ll have a do-not-track option for consumers that allows options about whether information can be collected and most advertisers … will get on board.”
Leibowitz has been urged by privacy groups to take a more active role in the W3C process, but he has been pressed by some lawmakers not to intervene. A group of Republican House members wrote the FTC chair late last month voicing concern about the impact that a strict do-not-track standard could have on Internet advertising and about the commission’s involvement in the W3C process.
Leibowitz and the FTC have been strong proponents of giving consumers a choice about whether they want to be tracked as they surf the Web. Many advertisers use information gathered from Internet traffic to target users with online ads based on their preferences. Leibowitz has argued that do-not-track should mean that websites honoring requests not to be tracked are agreeing not to collect information from consumers.
But some advertisers worry about the implications of do-not-track as the idea has gained more acceptance. All of the major Internet browser companies have now agreed to include a do-not-track option, with Google’s Chrome being the last to embrace the concept.
But Microsoft’s announcement in May that it would turn on the “do-not-track” feature as the default setting in its Internet Explorer 10 browser has sparked new debate over the limits of do-not-track. Advertisers say the move could diminish the availability of free content on the Web, which is often supported by ads, and may prompt some websites to choose not to honor do-not-track requests from consumers who use the Microsoft browser.
The Association of National Advertisers wrote Microsoft on Monday to voice its concerns. “Microsoft is taking the choice away from” consumers, ANA CEO Bob Liodice said in an interview on Tuesday. With Internet Explorer enjoying a 43 percent market share, ANA argued in its letter that Microsoft’s decision could “ultimately threaten to reduce the vast array of free content and services available to consumers.”
Microsoft said in a statement that its “approach to [do-not-track] in Internet Explorer 10 is part of our commitment to privacy by design and putting people first. We believe consumers should have a consistent experience and more control over how data about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used.”
Leibowitz said the FTC favors providing consumers with the choice to opt out of tracking, adding that “our approach is more modest than Microsoft.” But he also said that the advertising industry’s self-regulatory approach doesn’t go far enough. Much of the industry has rallied around the Digital Advertising Alliance’s “About Ads” icon program that offers consumers the choice to opt out of receiving targeted ads but still allows for some tracking.
“If the Digital Advertising Alliance and ad networks had worked through a real do-not-track option that allows consumers to opt out of [information collection] and not just advertising, we would not have seen Microsoft move toward” its position on do-not-track, Leibowitz said.
Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America said that advertisers are “really in my view attempting to intimidate the FTC into abandoning a strong pro-privacy position. It’s all part of an overall attack on do-not-track.”
Still, both Grant and Leibowitz said they do not believe that most websites will ultimately refuse to honor do-not-track requests from consumers. If they do, Leibowitz said some consumers may take steps to block all ads.
“What we’re seeing is more and more consumers taking a blunt instrument rather than a scalpel approach and using technology that blocks all ads. That’s not what advertisers … want to see,” he said.