FTC Chairman: 'Do Not Track' Rules Would Help Web Thrive

Proposed regulations would give consumer control, FTC chairman writes.

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Jon Leibowitz is chairman of the Federal Trade Commission

Let's say I stop at the mall to pick up a new jacket. As I browse through the stores, I am followed by a man with a walkie-talkie, reporting on every item I look at and passing that information to the other stores in the mall. By the time I reach the third floor, out of a store pops a salesperson, holding exactly the madras jacket I want, in the red-and-yellow plaid I favor as well as in my size.

Disconcerting? A little. Convenient? Absolutely. I buy the jacket.

But what if the man with the walkie-talkie sells information about my shopping behavior to my health insurer, who raises my rates based on my purchase of a deep-fat fryer? Or to my bank, which turns down my refinancing application after I buy the book The Winner's Guide to Casino Gambling?

As Americans trade mall lines for shopping online, our browsing is increasingly tracked—not by a hypothetical man with a walkie-talkie, but by a host of invisible data catchers that report your online clicks to marketing firms that, in turn, sell an astonishingly complete profile of your cyber behavior. The buyers are usually companies that target Internet advertising to your particular interests. Once you enter cyberspace, your private information—often without your consent or even knowledge—becomes a commodity out of your control. [See our slide show in Opinion: 5 Ways New Media Are Changing Politics.]

At the Federal Trade Commission, we want you to get that control back. We have proposed a "Do Not Track" mechanism that will allow you to easily specify what information you want to share about your browsing behavior and have those preferences travel with you to every website you visit. Technologies to create such a system exist; already, Google and Mozilla are considering ways to incorporate Do Not Track mechanisms in their browsers, and Microsoft has announced that its Internet Explorer 9 Web browser, due to be released soon, will have a Do Not Track feature.

Some in the online community argue that a Do Not Track system will "destroy" the Internet advertising business that currently relies on trailing consumers, often covertly. I disagree. Most consumers, including myself, like receiving Internet advertising designed especially for us and appreciate the innovative and free Web content that advertising supports.

Do Not Track does not stop advertisers from collecting information on consumers. It does require them to convince us not to opt out of tracking by explaining how tracking benefits us and assuring us they will treat our personal data with care. I am sure that the companies marketing on the Internet today are up to that task.

About 85 percent of consumers surveyed by Gallup have said that they want to be able to choose whether to be tracked as they surf. If companies don't step up to give consumers more choice, Congress may mandate Do Not Track. Privacy is a bipartisan concern, and we've seen strong support for more consumer choice on both sides of the aisle.

At the FTC, we don't buy the argument that a vital online marketplace has to be based on unauthorized Web snooping. We also believe, as do most American businesses, that no company loses by respecting the wishes of its customers. Do Not Track will allow the Internet to continue to thrive while protecting our basic right to privacy when we travel in cyberspace.

Read why 'Do Not Track' could destroy the internet by senior vice president and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau Michael Zaneis.