August 24th, 2011

Privacy Advocates Ask FTC To Condemn New Tracking Methods

Online Media Daily

Digital-rights advocates are urging the Federal Trade Commission to issue recommendations regarding Flash cookies, ETags and other tracking technologies as part of the group’s overhaul of the 11-year-old online advertising guides. 

“The revised business guide should make clear that businesses should honor consumers’ expressed privacy preferences, and that businesses should not use technical means of any kind to circumvent or otherwise make ineffective consumers’ actions taken to protect their privacy,” Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s information privacy programs, said in recent FTC comments.

ETags and Flash cookies are among the technologies that can circumvent users’ privacy settings by recreating HTTP cookies that users delete. Other methods of tracking people that delete their cookies include history-sniffing and device fingerprinting. Hoofnagle added in his comments that the emergence of new server-side tracking methods will make it “more difficult to determine what Web sites are doing.”

The Center for Democracy & Technology also weighed in with criticisms of newer online data collection methods.

“In response to a growing population of users who remove cookies and take other ‘good housekeeping’ measures for the express purpose of preventing tracking, many companies have devised new means for tracking users, some of which are impossible for users to block,” the group wrote. “The Commission’s updated guidelines should clarify that certain online data collection practices are considered deceptive and that participating companies should transparently explain their practices.”

In addition, the CDT asked the agency to state that companies engaged in behavioral targeting should allow people to opt out of online data collection. Current self-regulatory guidelines only call for ad companies to allow people to opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads—that is, ads targeted based on sites that users have visited.

The FTC said in May that it planned to update its 2000 ad guides to address social media, mobile devices and other newer platforms. The previous guides stated that rules requiring disclosure of all material information apply to online ads, as well as ads in traditional media. But the recommendations at the time dealt with banner ads and Web sites.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau said in its comments that self-regulation “continues to be the appropriate approach for addressing specific concerns with online advertising.” The IAB added that its self-regulatory privacy program “has effectively addressed concerns related to online behavioral advertising.”

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