FTC: Give Web users a 'do not track' option

Some days are too busy to keep up, and this has been one. But today's announcement that the Federal Trade Commission staff wants to implement a "Do Not Track" option for online activities is too important to ignore.

The announcement is here, and the detailed - and "preliminary" - staff report is here.

This is far from a done deal.  But that doesn't undermine its importance, according to privacy-rights advocates who follow these issues closely and offered their perspectives today via conference call.

A decade ago, a previous FTC issued a similar report calling for industry self-regulation, according to Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. Dixon says the message of today's report is that "the time for self-regulation is over."  Put simply, the old approach didn't work.

Expect a long, deliberative process - and pressure from Silicon Valley firms, media companies, and others that make money on targeted marketing. Public comments are due by Jan. 31, but Congress has already schedule testimony tomorrow about ideas for a "Do Not Track" mechanism.

Dixon says the FTC has turned away from an earlier idea for a do-not-track registry like the national "Do Not Call" list that now contains nearly 200 million phone numbers.  Instead, the focus is on a browser-based mechanism that would allow you to reject tracking of your activities when you're simply conducting a Google search or visiting a website. 

Peter Eckersley, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says such a mechanism could adapt easily to other contexts, such as cell phones or other wireless devices that bypass browsers.

The advocates' consensus: It's a good start, they say, but out here on the electonic frontier, action will matter more than words. Eckersley likens the fight against tracking to a continually escalating arms race, with the trackers "always two or three steps ahead." 

So stay tuned, and speak up.

Click here for FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz's statement.  Click here to submit a comment to the FTC.