Rise of the private surfers

As the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hosted a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C. on online behavioural advertising, a Canadian lobbyist called for a do-not-track list that would let Web surfers block sites that could monitor their surfing habits.

Nine American groups, including the World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked the FTC to enforce rules forcing online advertisers that place tracking technologies on personal computers to register the domain names of all servers involved in these activities. Consumers could then obtain a “do not track” list from the FTC and block the sites from downloading cookies and other tracking programs to their machines.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea that these groups have come up with,” said Pippa Lawson, director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. “In Canada there could be a Canadian authority to maintain the list [of servers].” She added the U.S. lags behind Canada in privacy protection because there is no legislation requiring marketing companies to get the consent of consumers before they collect information.

However, she said, Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act would not prohibit companies from tracking online behaviour without the consent of those surfing the Net.

Although the Network Advertising Initiative (a cooperative of online marketing and analytics companies) opposes the proposed “do-not-track” list, a Canadian analyst does not believe such a list would harm companies wanting to sell goods and services online.

“If people feel their privacy is protected, they will feel much more comfortable in conducting business electronically,” said Lawrence Surtees, vice-president and principal analyst for IDC’s Canadian Communications Practice. “Some Canadian marketers or end users using Internet marketing techniques may come to see that it curtails their efforts. On the other hand, I think privacy is not only essential, but privacy on the Internet and in e-commerce, in general, is good for business.”

Surtees added if online marketers only targeted consumers who opted to receive advertisements, they would save time and effort by weeding out people with no interest in their products or services.

The “do not track” list proposed by the nine American lobby groups would only let consumers opt out of behavioural tracking schemes. Companies would not be limited to tracking only those who opt in, and therefore they would still be free to track anyone who did not take the time to opt out.

With files from Grant Gross

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