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Federal Trade Commission pushing for Do Not Track system

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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Today the Federal Trade Commission released a report on privacy in the information age. Its chairman was blunt. He said industry self-regulation is not working for American consumers. And many of the companies we entrust with our data are letting us down.

Our own Steve Henn has been following the story and joins us now from Silicon Valley. Hi Steve.

STEVE HENN: Hey.

Vigeland: So give us a little picture of what the FTC is proposing at this point.

HENN: Well what the FTC really wants is to put consumers back in control of their own information. So here's how Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the FTC, described what is going on online right now:

Jon Leibowitz: Imagine you're walking through a shopping mall, and there's someone standing behind you. And they don't know exactly your name, but they certainly know around where you live or your zip code, and everywhere you're going, they're sending emails to the stores in front of you saying, 'That's Leibowitz, he's looking for a madras jacket and a matching fur coat.' And you know, if it's someone behind you, you'd be kind of like, kind of disturbed by it. And if that person's following your daughter, you want to punch him out.

Vigeland: Wow. Can't disagree.

HENN: Yeah. So the FTC is proposing a kind of national Do Not Track mechanism. It's not really a list, but what they have in mind is a button on your browser that you could push that would tell companies -- all companies -- following you around online, basically to leave you alone. And they also want big data aggregators -- the companies that store and compile all this information about you -- to give customers access to the data about them.

Vigeland: Interesting. You know I have to say, couldn't you just do this by disabling cookies, or is that not enough anymore?

HENN: Well yeah, you can do it by disabling your cookies, or many browsers have these incognito modes that conceal your identity. But I think what the FTC wants is for people to really have the ability to really control their online experience. If you disable your cookies, you go to a site that you have a relationship with, they don't know who you are.

Vigeland: Does the proposal have teeth?

HENN: Honestly, at this point, not really. Or at least not yet. The FTC was completely upfront about saying that they don't have the authority right now to issue the rules they feel need to be written on this. But there is a pretty vigorous debate brewing in Congress now on privacy, and there seems to be bipartisan support building for some kind of privacy legislation. Leibowitz also really encouraged the tech industry to get out in front of this, and to create a Do Not Track mechanism on its own. Basically not wait for Congress.

Vigeland: What are the chances of that, do you think?

HENN: I think the chances of tech firms trying to do something on their own is actually pretty good. And I think the reason for that is that they really, really don't like the idea of a legislative fix for this problem. So already you're seeing big organizations and online advertising getting together and trying to create some kind of Do Not Track-like system that they can live with. For big online advertising businesses, tracking is their business. It's central to what they do, and a law that wasn't crafted just the way they like it could really kill them.

Vigeland: Let me ask you though, Steve, this is targeted at people who don't want to be followed around by technology. But it seems like these days, so many people are inviting that. I mean, people are telling the world where they're eating dinner.

HENN: Yeah, that's true. And the industry has to take a lot of solace in that. I think what the FTC really wants is for the industry to be completely transparent about when they're collecting information and how that information's going to be used. If that's true, I don't think the Federal Trade Commission really has a problem with that.

Vigeland: Marketplace's Steve Henn. Thanks so much.

HENN: Sure thing.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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