SCP Attends Summer Meeting of National Association of Attorneys General, Offers "Do Not Track" Proposal to Privacy Working Group

On June 14 and 15, SCP President Stacie Rumenap participated in the National Association of Attorneys General summer meeting in Seattle, Washington. The conference highlighted efforts by state attorneys general to use technology to protect the public, with an emphasis on preventing the online sexual exploitation of children which has reached epic proportions.

On June 16, Rumenap addressed members of the Privacy Working Group on the feasibility of whether a "Do Not Track" list, similar to the popular "Do Not Call" list, would sufficiently allow consumers to prevent companies from tracking which websites they visit.

The problem, she maintained, is that consumers increasingly rely on the Internet for everyday transactions and services, many of which involve their most sensitive affairs, including health, financial, and other personal matters, and they expect a certain level of privacy and safety to be built in to that experience.

It's not just older consumers who desire such privacy, she told listeners. Contrary to popular claim that young people "are less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people are," an April 2010 UC Berkley study found "that large percentages of young adults (those 18-24 years) are in harmony with older Americans regarding concerns about online privacy, norms, and policy suggestions.

While participation in social networks is high, the findings show that over half the young adults surveyed are more concerned about privacy now than they were five years ago. This finding mirrors the percentage of people their parent's age or older with that worry. The research found that a large majority of young adults:

  • Have refused to give information to a business in cases where they felt it was too personal or not necessary
  • Believe anyone who uploads a photo of them to the Internet should get their permission first, even if taken in public
  • Believe there should be a law that gives people the right to know all the information websites know about them
  • Believe there should be a law that requires websites to delete all stored information about an individual
  • Are just as likely as older users to read privacy policies and delete browser cookies, and are nearly as likely to abort a purchase because of privacy concerns with the e-commerce site.

The study also highlights three key reasons young adults are more inclined to over-share information online: 1) Young adults are uninformed about their lack of right-to-privacy 2) Youth are more inclined to take risks, bow to peer pressure, and ignore consequences, and 3) Social networks, by their very design, encourage increasing the amount of information shared over time.

Even though this study and others show that both younger and older Internet users expect their privacy to be protected, newspapers are filled with stories about online fraud, identity theft and abuse. Just last month Google announced that their online mapping application, Street View, had been collecting private information from open Wi-Fi networks as its cars drove across the globe snapping digital photos, resulting in an investigation over privacy breaches by the FTC, members of Congress and several state attorneys general.

Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA) has made public his legislative response to protecting online privacy. While Boucher's bill is being decried from online advertisers and privacy advocates alike, (online advertisers say it will make the online experience as we now know it impossible; privacy advocates complain the bill does not go far enough) he recognizes the need for safeguards to be put in place to keep consumer's online identities private.

This is why Rumenap offered proposing to the FTC the creation of a "Do Not Track" list that would allow consumers to better protect their privacy by preventing companies from tracking what websites they visit. A Do Not Track proposal was considered by the FTC and Congress in 2007 when Google announced its proposed purchase of DoubleClick, an online ad-serving and tracking company. Groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Consumer Federation of America and the World Privacy Forum, among others, helped draft a proposal.

Rumenap's thought wasn't to prevent online advertising or targeted advertising entirely as many of the above groups suggest, but instead empower consumers to choose their own level of privacy protections and create their own digital footprint by allowing them to continue to receive online ads, should they wish to do so, but stopping companies from tracking what sites they visit, should a consumer desire that option. The list could also enable consumers to access and change behavioral data that ad companies collect about them.

While the FTC does not regulate ad networks' privacy policies, consumers who do not want their online behavior tracked already have a way to opt out through the group Network Advertising Initiative, However, there are some problems with this arrangement, 1) Few people have heard of the program, 2) Only about 25 percent of advertising networks are members, 3) Few people set their browser to block cookies, the tracking tags that enable much of the targeting on the web today and 4) Web-tracking technology has advanced since NAI was created so its members have developed new ways of tracking behavior even if a user has downloaded the cookie.

Making Do Not Track technology work would involve technical challenges including a change to web browsers or an add-on to a browser to make it work. Most likely, companies such as Microsoft and Mozilla that offer Internet browsers are unlikely to cooperate because they rely on online advertising revenue, either directly or indirectly, although certainly efforts would be made to try and gain industry consensus around a specific proposal before introducing the concept to the FTC or others.

In order to make such an idea work, any advertiser that tracks user behavior would have to report what servers they use to serve up a cookie or other tracking device. Individuals would then update their browsers to include a plug-in that could download the list and block some or all of the tracking cookies. Like the Do Not Call list, government regulators would have the power to enforce the measure against companies that secretly track users or keep more information than they say they do.

The FTC would probably need legislative approval and increased appropriations before it could implement a Do Not Track list, just as it received approval and funding for the Do Not Call list.

As with any proposal, adoption of the list could result in some unintended consequences that consumers may also find off-putting. For one, a Do Not Track list could increase the volume of online ads.

The reason for the potential ad increase is related to a key difference between telemarketing and online advertising. When individual consumers add their names to the Do Not Call list, they stop receiving sales phone calls altogether. Web surfers who would join the Do Not Track list, however, would still see online ads, just not ads targeted specifically to them. Ad networks argue that, because targeting increases ad prices, each ad seen by those on the list would be cheaper than ads seen by people not on the list. Thus, a website probably would have to show more ads to compensate for the loss of revenue from targeted ads or charge consumers to view certain websites.

It's not entirely clear that consumers care about privacy so much that they would be willing to pay for a service or see even more ads. But Do Not Track would give consumers who are concerned about privacy ways to use the web without being tracked and would raise awareness of what advertisers are doing on the web.

Charging for websites is unlikely. Consumers have demonstrated that they are more willing to go to free, ad-supported websites than to pay for access to sites. Take news sites, for example. The Wall Street Journal Online, one of the most successful paid sites on the Web, has over a million subscribers. The number of registered users for New York Times' free site is more than 10 times the number of WSJ Online subscribers. The willingness of consumers to see more ads, rather than pay subscription fees, is the chief reason the majority of websites rely on advertising.

In the end, Rumenap encouraged Privacy Working Group members to bring forward their own solutions to protecting consumer privacy and promoting a safe and secure experience for all online users.

About Stop Internet Predators
Stop Child Predators brings together a team of policy experts, law enforcement officers, community leaders, and parents that persuade lawmakers and the public to enact policies that protect America's children from sexual predators. Stop Child Predators is the only national organization that leads campaigns in every state to advocate legislation that prevents the sexual exploitation of children and protects the rights of victims.