Monday, November 5, 2007

Beginning the Do Not Track Debate

Recent announcements by AOL and MySpace imply diametrically opposing stances on tracking of website users. AOL is supposed to be readying a Do Not Track service on their site, although it is not yet on either their main site or listing of betas. MySpace, on the other hand, plans to offer advertisers a targeting service based on the profiles and behaviors of users. TechCrunch has early details and a screen shot of the interface for the service called SelfService by MySpace.

While publishers are taking varying approaches privacy organizations including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and others have submitted a proposal for a Do Not Track rule. The Federal Trade Commission held hearings on the subject last week. They have posted the transcript in the form of webcasts on their site. Yahoo had a nice graphic of what the rule would look like a few days ago.

And no, I haven’t listened to 2 day’s worth of webcasts either, but they are well organized to locate subjects or speakers of particular interest. The usual suspects are, of course, arrayed in the usual formations—privacy advocates vs. advertisers and web publishers. The proposal is worth reading, especially page 4 on the recommendations for the rule. The NYTimes online notes that while Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL/Time Warner spoke at the hearing, MySpace was there only as an observer.

One thing that caught my eye was an element of user-generated content in the hearing. The Stop project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School has sponsored a Cookies Crumble Contest and votes on the winning video were taken at the hearing. A first for the FTC. . .maybe for Harvard Law also?

Considering how slowly other privacy initiatives have moved since 9/11, this is a debate that is likely to continue for some time. While it does, technology will continue its inexorable progress.

I’ve watched the privacy issues for many years. I would call attention to the Do Not Call legislation. Could the industry have forestalled actual legislation by being more transparent and accommodating to the wishes of the public? Should the Internet industry begin (yesterday) to inform users in an open and understandable manner what they are doing and why they are doing it? History suggests it should!
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