In two days of meetings, the FTC is taking the online advertising industry to task:
Internet advertisers have fallen short of promised self-regulation in respecting Internet users’ privacy, a Federal Trade Commission official said on Thursday, even as one firm, Tacoda, said it decided to refrain from collecting some sensitive information.
FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz said Internet advertisers should tell consumers that information was being gathered, give them a choice to opt out, and protect any data collected.
“In practice, they often leave a lot to be desired,” he said at a FTC conference to discuss the privacy implications of the data collected by Internet advertisers.
The audience was a Who’s Who of Internet advertising firms such asand Yahoo as well as privacy advocates.
Leibowitz said his 12-year-old daughter and her friends told him that they been exposed to ads that said things like “touch me harder” and “how long is your next kiss?”
“People should have dominion over their computers,” he said. “We really mean it.”
He left open the possibility of a “do not track” list, similar to the FTC’s “do not call” registry which requires telemarketers to refrain from phoning anyone on the list. Such a “do not track” list was proposed this week by several consumer and privacy groups.
“I am concerned … when my personal information is sold to third parties and when my online (research) is tracked across several Web sites,” said Leibowitz, one of two Democrats on the five-member commission.
But several other speakers at the FTC conference cautioned against any government regulation.
Randall Rothenberg, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, warned against inadvertently stifling one of the most dynamic sectors of the U.S. economy.
“The government must be prudent,” he said.
Trevor Hughes of the Network Advertising Initiative mocked what he called the “shock” that advertisers are trying to develop more targeted ads. “We also have self-regulatory programs,” he said. “We have many, many layers of control and protection for consumers today.”
Industry leaders insist they are taking adequate measures:
Google, Microsoft, and Facebook joined a host of other Web companies in Washington Thursday to argue that they already fully protect users’ privacy interests, and said that additional regulations could harm the online advertising industry.
“Billions of dollars of services and information are provided today for free, or nearly free, because of online advertising,” Google deputy general counsel Nicole Wong told the FTC at the first day of a town hall meeting about privacy and behavioral targeting.
Wong, along with other industry executives, faced off against consumer advocates on a host of privacy-related issues ranging from the implications of behavioral targeting to why companies store search queries to allegations of Facebook employees spying on users.
Representatives from the online publishing and ad industry argued that companies already had robust privacy protections, while consumer and privacy advocates like the World Privacy Forum and the Center for Democracy & Technology took the position that collecting and storing data creates the potential for misuse.
For instance, Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, proposed that a Web surfer who discloses a medical condition online might end up being denied health insurance coverage if that information got into the wrong hands.
But Web company executives stressed that they have privacy policies and teams of employees to make sure that individual users aren’t identifiable or otherwise compromised. In Google’s case, that would include Wong–plus a general privacy counsel, senior privacy counsel, and 16 “embedded” attorneys.
Visit the FTC Web site to view transcripts of the two-day meetings. To find out more about what you can do right now to guard your online privacy, Privacy Maven recommends the Federal government Web Site OnguardOnline.gov.