Will the FTC's 'Do-Not-Track' Alleviate Privacy Woes?


By Tony Kontzer I have to admit, I'm not sure where I come down on the Federal Trade Commission's proposal in December that a persistent "do not track" button be added to popular web browsing applications such as Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome.

It's possible that the FTC is on the money with its suggestion that consumers need a more pervasive and easier-to-understand mechanism that will help them preserve their privacy as they go about their business on the Internet. After all, a string of controversies last year involving Facebook has provided compelling evidence not only that the typical Web user isn't savvy enough to know how to retain control of his or her online identity, but that it's foolish -- perhaps even naïve -- to expect Web sites to provide sufficient privacy protections.

On the other hand, as some tech-watchers have argued, maybe the FTC should be focusing instead on bigger online offenses -- things like automated newsletter sign-ups and confusing privacy policy statements. In fact, it's quite likely that those of us who've been active online for any length of time already have left a trail of data so thick and detailed, and packed with so many potential insights into who we are and what we like, that a do-not-track button represents a futile attempt at trying to put the horses back into the barn.

Being a consumer advocate myself -- and it's my belief that most of us have been playing way too fast and loose with our personal privacy during the Internet era -- my initial tendency is to say that any steps intended to help ensure that the least seasoned Web users among us are adequately protected are welcome at this point. (Think of your bewildered Aunt Mabel who has no idea what a "browser" is.) In reading the FTC's news release announcing its proposal, a key sentence jumped out at me: "Current privacy policies force consumers to bear too much burden in protecting their privacy." It's hard to argue that claim, especially in light of the flap over Facebook's overly complicated privacy settings. And it's a burden that absolutely should be shared.

Still, whether or not the proposed do-not-track button is the right mechanism is highly debatable. But if not that, then what? It's an important question that affects every one of us -- whether we're IT executives, online marketers, privacy advocates, or simply reluctant participants in the online economy.

The FTC is taking comment on the issue until the end of January, so if you feel strongly about this either way, this is your chance to make your feelings known.


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