FTC calls for “Do Not Track” mechanism for Web browsers

A report compiled by the FTC proposed a "do not track" mechanism for browsers that would let users prevent companies from gathering sensitive information from their online activity

Nearly all companies with a big Web presence, and search engines in particular, are known for gathering the user's browsing history and other personal information to improve on the services they offer, such as by offering better targeted advertisements. A preliminary report compiled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) addressing the lack of transparency and user control over how companies gather Internet browsing data from their users, proposes a "Do Not Track" feature for Internet browsers that would allow users to opt out completely and protect their privacy.

Because end-users don't always have control over the amount or even type of data that is stored by companies, there's a chance that sensitive data could be inadvertently sent to third parties or used by the company against the user's wishes. Google allows users to keep this data in check for those who own a Google account, but this is not the case for all search engines. Unless explicitly blocked, all the major search engines gather history (including searches, visited pages, etc.) for a period of time that usually ranges between three and 18 months.

While this kind of information gathering can be beneficial to improve the user experience, it has caused problems in the past. Yahoo, for instance, has been criticized for providing Chinese authorities with sensitive information that has helped convict local journalists and political activists on several occasions.

The preliminary report filed by the FTC states that industry efforts to address privacy through self-regulation "have been too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection". To combat this it suggests implementation of a "Do Not Track" option that could be activated on the Web browser's end, so that users won't need to harvest the information on how to implement privacy measures from the lengthy terms and conditions of every single service they use on the Internet.

The FTC, in addition to making policy recommendations, has said it will take action against companies that cross the line with consumer data and violate consumers' privacy, especially when children and teens are involved.

The report also recommends that companies assign personnel to oversee privacy issues, train employees, and conduct privacy reviews for new products and services. Consumers should be presented with choices about the collection and sharing of their data at the time and in the context in which they are making decisions. Finally, the report suggests the use of standardized notices that allow the public to compare how competing companies handle sensitive information.

Public comments and further input on the report can be submitted to the FTC here and will be accepted until January 31, 2011.

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