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Do Not Track: Can We Expect a U.S. Law Anytime Soon?

How long will it take for Do Not Track (DNT) options to become the law of the land here? It depends on things that are happening right now. The federal government and internet businesses are engaged in an exploratory phase that entails lots of hearings, “best practice” buzzwords, and a public relations war machine designed to preempt any hasty regulatory activity. In other words, as the Obama Administration and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) demonstrate awareness of this emerging consumer issue, Internet providers say they can handle it responsibly without any government interference or interruption of commerce.

A recent Pew Research poll found that 68 percent of respondents are “not okay” with the behavioral advertising that stems from online data collection, and providers have been quick to respond to public sentiment before the government acts. Earlier this year, the FTC issued a report urging online businesses to voluntarily offer opt-out tools. One is the DNT flag, an HTTP header (“DNT:1”) that allows users to opt out of tracking. Yahoo! plans to launch its own DNT function this summer, and other providers are in the process implementing of similar tools. They hope that being proactive now will prevent regulatory interference in the near future.

However, many consumer advocates and some lawmakers want to see regulation sooner, including laws that govern what companies can and cannot do when they receive the DNT signal. Drawing inspiration from the the new EU privacy law, there are even calls to mandate a universal DNT function in future web browsers. Right now, advertising companies, internet sites and other stakeholders are trying to craft voluntary guidelines that will stave off further government interference. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group, convened in Washington, D.C., last week to try to reach a consensus around key DNT issues. The consortium, which includes big players like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! (although Facebook is conspicuously absent) is attempting to develop a protocol for responding to the DNT flag and define what constitutes consumer-friendly tracking. Their ongoing discussions focus on very thorny issues, including the distinction between first- and third-party websites, tracking exemptions necessary for detecting and fighting fraud, and data usage by first-party websites. Consumer groups will likely come to the table demanding that consumer opt-out is absolute, while businesses will fight for exceptions that allow them to keep and use linkable data from users who activated the DNT signal. My opinion is that consensus is a long way off, and there will likely be an uneasy detente until the FTC is forced to get more formally involved as a result of high-profile lawsuits or political pressure.

Will the DNT drum beat grow louder? It depends on how online businesses choose to act and innovate now on behalf of both commerce and consumers. Clearly these interests are not mutually exclusive. If consumers have an option, but can be convinced that opting-in will generate more meaningful benefits for them, then they will be the ones who win in the end– not lawmakers or lobbyists.

How could DNT affect your business? How do you –-and your customers– benefit from data collection? These are important questions to consider as you develop your online marketing plan.

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