July 29, 2010

FTC in Charge of Net Ads? -- and Opt-In vs. Opt Out

Greetings. Word is that the U.S. FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is seriously toying with the concept of establishing some sort of Internet "do-not-track" list to ostensibly control Web ads that involve behavioral targeting and/or user tracking.

Outside of the fact that it's not entirely clear that the FTC has this authority per se, and in the maximal case would only have purview over U.S. sites (the Internet is international the last time I checked), the concept of trying to create such a list strikes me basically as undesirable and impractical -- for both policy and technical reasons.

I'll have much more to say about this later, but as a starting point let's consider these issues:

- How effective has the phone solicitation "do-not-call" list really been? In my experience and based on anecdotal evidence -- despite claims from some quarters of vastly reduced solicitations -- the reality is that the calls just keep on comin'. And the phone-based list deals with the comparatively simple target of phone numbers, not the complexities of Web sites.

- How do we actually define "tracking" and "ad targeting" in a rapidly evolving Internet environment? This is actually a very complicated matter.

- Are ads that are generally less targeted and more "scattershot" a net plus or minus for consumers?

- If ads lose significant value, what are the ramifications for the largely "free services" model that most Internet users have come to expect on the Web?

- How could a broad inter-site list of this sort be implemented without creating unacceptable privacy and security challenges carrying the potential for unintended negative consequences?

And so on.

My sense is that the concept of an Internet "do-not-track" list of the type under discussion represents largely the same sort of mostly (though not entirely) political posturing that was behind the telephone-based "do not call" concept, and that the practical issues and problems with such a plan for the Internet are vast.

At this juncture it might also be useful to mention again an important paper I first noted some months ago -- Opt-In Dystopias -- which explores in depth how seemingly obvious issues of "opt-in" vs. "opt-out" in reality can be far more complex and subtle than they might appear to be initially. This paper should be required reading for anyone interested in or involved with these issues.

More to come.


Posted by Lauren at July 29, 2010 02:07 PM | Permalink
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