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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

Straight talk on consumer privacy from FTC commissioner Brill

October 2, 2015 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

Julie Brill, the outspoken FTC Commissioner, recently gave a stirring summary of how unaddressed consumer concerns have led to the rise of ad blocking software.

From cookies to device fingerprinting and cross-device linking, consumers continue to struggle to understand when they are being tracked, who is tracking them and how to opt out. The problem worsens for consumers when you consider that tracking technologies are becoming nearly invisible and ever more comprehensive. To underscore the concern, the FTC is hosting a workshop on November 16 to examine the practice of “cross device tracking.”

Piling on top of this transparency and education problem, controls for consumers haven’t kept up with the technology developments. And frankly: Ignoring clear signals sent directly from consumers is a perilous path. As Commissioner Brill opined, it’s surprising “the ad tech industry hasn’t been more motivated to offer consumers better tools to protect their privacy, because it has always been the case that consumers could take matters into their own hands.”

Indeed, fighting against better consumer controls has been a major contributor to the rise in ad blocking. Early on, the “cookie” became the boogieman of internet privacy so consumers began to delete them altogether. According to a Pew Research Center 2015 survey, 59% of consumers clear their cookies or browser history – the top method used by consumers to protect their privacy.

A few years ago, Do Not Track (DNT) emerged as a hopeful solution, providing a persistent way to signal consumer choice. But, despite a promise at the White House in 2012, ad tech industry representatives have been fighting a DNT standard for years even though it’s already built into every major browser and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recently finished a reasonable standard for how the signal should be sent and how servers should respond.  The W3C standard clearly reinforces the distinction between 1st and 3rd parties and importantly makes it clear that companies who straddle the line (e.g. Google, Facebook) require consent before tracking users out of context.  So it should come as no surprise that, as Doc Searls notes here, the “hockey stick” rise in ad blocking starts around the same time it became clear that industry wasn’t going to honor DNT signals.

Do you see a pattern here? I do. It’s time for us to get off this merry-go-round of ignoring and then fighting consumers. As Commissioner Brill suggests – let’s “provide consumers with something they clearly want: to see advertising that respects their privacy and that they can trust.”