Making Sure Net Advertisers 'Do Not Track' You

Sam Bloomberg-Rissman / Spaces Images-Corbis

Here is how Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, describes the current state of affairs on the Internet: "Say I'm walking through a mall. And there's a guy following me. He doesn't know my name, but he knows where I live, and he knows I'm carrying an American Express card, because I used it in the last store I visited, and he knows I'm looking for a madras jacket with yellow and red in it, and he's sending signals about me to the stores in front of me. If he's following me, that's troubling. If he's following my daughter, I want to punch him out. That's what's going on on the Internet. People are being tracked. And consumers have no idea this is happening."

That is why the FTC has proposed a "do not track" option, which would give Web surfers the ability to block so-called tracking cookies. These are little bits of software code that advertisers embed into your computer to keep track of which websites you visit.

For the most part, cookies aren't dangerous. They were created so advertisers could get a better idea of who you are and what you're interested in, so they could send you ads you're more likely to find relevant. Guys get ads for Just for Men beard and mustache gel; women get ads for Clinique, or Crabtree & Evelyn. Still, the technology is a bit creepy, mostly because cookies are planted on your computer without your knowledge.

The FTC compares the "do not track" concept to the National Do Not Call Registry, which lets people block telemarketers from calling them at home. That idea, introduced in the U.S. in 2003, caught on so well that 201 million phone numbers are now on it. Leibowitz thinks only a small percentage of consumers would choose "do not track"—because while nobody likes getting called at home by telemarketers, most people do understand the benefit of getting relevant advertising.

Signing up wouldn't mean you'd no longer get bombarded with ads. They'd just be random ones instead of ads that are supposedly relevant to you. In fact, Leibowitz says, he personally would continue to allow cookies on his computer. "I sort of like having targeted advertising," he says. But the point is that people should know what's going on. "Your computer is your property," says Leibowitz. "If someone embeds software in it, you ought to be aware of it."

That makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, the FTC anticipates a hue and cry from advertisers and website operators. That's what happened when it proposed the Do Not Call registry. "We were told by direct marketers that millions of jobs would be lost and consumer choice would be undermined," says Leibowitz. "But it turned out to be one of the most popular and worthwhile programs we ever did."

For now the whole thing is just a proposal. The FTC is hoping Internet companies will adopt "do not track" on their own rather than having it forced upon them through legislation. Microsoft, in fact, is already buying in. The company just announced that the next version of its Internet Explorer browser, due out early in 2011, will have a feature called Tracking Protection that lets users block cookies.

"Do not track" probably won't spell doom for online advertisers. But it will put the burden on them to explain to consumers what targeted advertising is and why it's good for them. They'll have to come out of the shadows; they'll have to be honest with people. What a radical concept. I'm all for it.