Will “Do Not Track” Do For Computers What “Do Not Call” Did For Phones?

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The federal government is toying with the idea of a "Do Not Call" list for computer users. But some experts doubt it will work as well as the version that successfully bans phone solicitors. In the meantime, we tell you what you can to protect yourself today.

You’ve probably heard of the national “Do Not Call” list. Or perhaps you’re one of the 145 million Americans who have signed up for the federal government’s registry since it started in 2003. If so, telemarketers can’t dial your phone number – and they face hefty fines (up to $16,000 per violation) for ignoring your wishes.

Now the same agency that created Do Not Call is mulling over a similar plan called “Do Not Track.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants to do for computers what it’s already done so well for telephones. But despite its past success, tech experts are skeptical – mostly because computers are so much more complicated than phones.

How does “Do Not Track” work?

While the details have yet to be announced, a Do Not Track list would essentially ban online marketers from following which websites you visit and then targeting their ads based on what they’ve learned about your shopping habits.

Right now, advertisers can discover which sites you visit by nibbling on your cookies – small pieces of computer code that tell web servers where you’ve been. They’re often used for good, not evil. For instance, without cookies, every time you visited Amazon.com and other familiar shopping sites, they wouldn’t remember you, forcing you to log on each time.

But those cookies are also used to track the sites you go to for the purpose of hitting you with ads. For instance, if you’ve perused computer reviews on cnet.com, you’re more likely to see an ad for a computer. A Do Not Track list won’t reduce the number of ads you see, but it might reduce the feeling you get that you’re being stalked online.

Here’s how the Center for Democracy and Technology described Do Not Track:

Unlike the Do Not Call list – which prevents consumers on the list from receiving most forms of telemarketing calls – the Do Not Track List would not impede the display of advertising to consumers using the list. The Do Not Track List would allow consumers to opt out of being tracked for advertising purposes, but the ads themselves could still be displayed.

Why it’s so hard to do

Tech experts say a Do Not Track List is much harder than a Do Not Call List for several reasons. First, computer technology changes much faster than phone technology. Will the FTC be able to keep up with whatever new methods marketers come up with? Second, how would individuals sign up for this? Without a telephone number, how will computer users be properly identified?

“It’s simply not feasible for something like this to be executed, and even if it were, would we want the government in charge of enforcing compliance?” asks tech site Mashable.com. It adds…

It’s as if no one thought about the feasibility of enforcing restrictions on advertising companies, or how, for instance, you’d initiate an agreement to share demographic information with a user downloading an advertising supported podcast. In a world where these privacy advocates have their way, am I going to be inundated with privacy policy pop-ups every time I navigate to a new domain?

But whatever the techies think, the public loves the idea. A survey this summer found 79 percent of Americans “would favor implementation of a ‘do not track’ list similar to the ‘do not call’ list.”

That’s a lot of voters, which is important because a Do Not Track list would need support in Congress. It’s certainly been a long time coming – the idea for a Do Not Track list dates back to 2007, when privacy groups first started agitating for it. When FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz testified before the Senate Commerce Committee this summer, he mentioned a “universally easy-to-use mechanism for consumers” as something he was “focusing on.” No one knows how close the FTC is to clearing those technical hurdles.

What you can do right now

So what if you don’t want to wait around until the FTC figures it all out? You have immediate options…

  • A little-known organization called the Network Advertising Initiative offers an “opt-out” tool that shows you the identity of its members that are tracking your cookies – and let’s you check a box to make them stop. This represents only a fraction of the companies tracking you, but it’s a start. Details are here.
  • If you use Firefox as your web browser, it has an easy-to-install add-on called TACO. It has nothing to do with Mexican food. It stands for “Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out” and stops “behavioral advertising” from 100 known companies that practice it. Download it here.
  • If you use Internet Explorer, Google has the answer for you, but without the cool acronym. It’s called the Advertising Cookie Opt-Out Plugin, and it’s available here.
  • All the major web browsers have a button to disable “third-party” cookies, but some advertisers sneak them onto your computer through in other nefarious ways. They’re much harder to block and some can even come back after they’ve been deleted. There’s even a term for those: zombie cookies.

While you’re at it, you may want to reduce the spam email you get. We tell you how here.

Stacy Johnson

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