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FTC ‘carefully monitoring’ online tracking

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Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 3:14 pm

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FTC  ‘carefully monitoring’ online tracking

I just received an encouraging letter from the Federal Trade Commission assuring me that its Division of Privacy and Identity Protection is “carefully monitoring the privacy issues associated with online tracking.”

The letter, from Maneesha Mithal, the division’s Associate Director, was in response to our recent complaint about companies who said they would not track consumers who opted out.  According to a study by the Stanford Security Lab, eight companies only stopped serving behavioral ads to consumers.  They continued to track them in violation of their published privacy policies.

The offenders were 24/7 Real Media, Adconion, AudienceScience, Netmining, Undertone, Vibrant Media, Wall Street on Demand and TARGUSinfo Advisor.

“Your letter raises important issues that relate to online data collection  and use practices as well as the ability of consumers to limit or prevent such collection and use of their data,” wrote Mithal.  She said the FTC has “aggressively pursued enforcement in the online behavioral advertising area.”

Mithal also cited the June settlement with Chitika, an advertising company which allowed consumers to opt out, but didn’t say the opt-out cookies lasted only 10 days. Under the FTC order Chitika’s opt-out cookie must last at least five years.

She also pointed out that FTC staff has recommended “that consumers be given a universal, one-stop control mechanism for online behavioral tracking, often referred to as Do Not Track.”

Three of the four browsers — Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — have implemented a Do Not Track option.  Google has not done so with Chrome. The problem is that there is no requirement that DNT requests be honored.  We need legislation that would mandate DNT requests be honored and impose stiff sanctions if they were not.  The law should give explicit enforcement authority to the FTC and state attorneys general as well as include a right of private action.

For now the FTC is essentially limited to cracking down on companies that violate their own privacy policies or act in unfair or deceptive manner.  That was the case in the Stanford Security Lab case.

Here’s what Mithal said specifically about my complaint:

“Please be advised that any Commission investigation is non-public unless and until the Commission decides to issue a formal complaint or close the investigation. As a result, we can neither confirm nor deny that we are conducting an investigation of the issues raised by your letter.

“Thank you for raising this issue with us.”

My interpretation of the entire letter:  The FTC is very much on the case.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 349 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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