Dispelling "Do Not Track" Myths
October 31, 2007
Earlier today CDT joined eight other privacy and consumer groups in urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take proactive steps to protect consumer privacy in light of the growth of "behavioral targeting" -- the practice of collecting and compiling a record of individual consumers' activities, interests, preferences, and/or communications over time for the purposes of serving advertising based on the information collected. Marketers and advertising networks generally accomplish this sort of tracking by placing a persistent, unique identifier (such as a cookie ID) on a consumer's computer that can help identify that consumer as he or she visits sites across the Web and over time. As part of the groups' proposal, we asked the FTC to implement a "Do Not Track List" intended to protect consumers from having their online activities unknowingly tracked, stored, and used by marketers and advertising networks. The idea for the Do Not Track List is reminiscent of the extremely popular Do Not Call list maintained by the FTC. That program allows consumers to submit their phone numbers to the FTC to avoid being called by telemarketers. The FTC maintains these phone numbers in a list, and telemarketers can pay the FTC to get a copy of the list so they know which consumers not to call. Although the Do Not Track List starts from a similar premise - that the FTC can help to facilitate a mechanism for users to opt out of being subject to a particular industry practice - there are important distinctions between the two:
- The Do Not Track List does not automatically prevent advertisements from being served to consumers who have signed up for the list. Unlike the Do Not Call list - which prevents consumers on the list from receiving most forms of telemarketing calls - the Do Not Track List would not impede the display of advertising to consumers using the list. The Do Not Track List would allow consumers to opt out of being tracked for advertising purposes, but the ads themselves could still be displayed. As shown above, as long as marketers separate their ad servers from the servers used to set persistent unique identifiers for behavioral tracking, consumers using the Do Not Track List would continue to receive advertisements.