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Congressional Internet Caucus Hosts Do Not Track Panel

The Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus held a panel on 4/5/2011 to discuss the progress on and possible consequences of Do Not Track (DNT) proposals and legislation efforts. The panel featured a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the online behavioral advertising market:

Erich Andersen, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for Microsoft represented browser companies. He asserts that there's "no consensus on what 'Do Not Track' actually means" because, though the FTC released a definition in 2009, that definition is seen as potentially too limited. Anderson also asserted that "No one knows what the impact of DNT will be," though Microsoft has taken steps to improve DNT capability in Explorer and supports a uniform national framework of rules about behavioral advertising and tracking user behavior.

Stuart Ingis of Venable LLC and counsel to the Digital Advertising Alliance spoke for a coalition of online behavioural advertising companies which have pursued a course of self regulation. Their industry standards were finalized just last year and companies, including Google and Yahoo, have only recently begun to implement them. Ingis asserts that self regulation is like government regulation in that "it takes time." A major part of the Digital Advertising Alliance's initiative is the development of a DNT icon (see below) placed in ads which users can click for information and opt out choices. Ingis emphasised the buy in and effectiveness self regulatory efforts were having, however he concurred with Erich Anderson about the many ways DNT could ultimately take shape, citing "six different proposals from credible entities about how to implement opt out with a browser."

Maneesha Mithal, Associate Director in the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is one of, if not the, most authoritative regulatory agencies in issues of online advertising. She stated that any website or service that claimed to follow certain privacy or DNT standards but did not actually comply with them would be subject to the FTC's Section 5 authority against deceptive practices. Sites that do not claim to offer any opt out of tracking at all could not be forced to, though she said the FTC reserves the right to review complaints about such sites on a case by case basis. The FTC supports DNT efforts as a way of promoting transparency and increasing consumer choice and control in their online experience, and remains concerned about secondary uses of user information besides the supply of ads.

Ashkan Soltani, A independent researcher and consultant focused on privacy, security, and behavioral economics, spoke on behalf of privacy advocates. His research encompassed the third party tracking tools on 350,000 different websites. Some sites with just three visible third party ads and tools had an additional 21 hidden tracking mechanisms and found that "one third party had a presence on over 90%" of the sites surveyed. He raised the point that behavioral tracking with that kind of breadth enables a third party to build a detailed and far reaching profile of a user. Such a profile is vulnerable to data breach or theft which can then put the consumer at risk. He raised the point that allowing, by default, "third party tracking was a design decision" and design can be changed. He argued that contextual advertising would still be very viable, advertisers would innovate and adapt new ways to reach consumers, and that nothing would stop content providers from offering users the option to allow themselves to be tracked in exchange for free content.

Full Audio of the Panel

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