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Creating a 'do not track' online policy will not be easy

By the end of the year, consumers are expected to get a clearer picture of what the future holds for their privacy online.

Like the Do Not Call Registry, instituted by the Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, the feds have been looking into ways to restrict unwanted tracking online.

"The FTC is in the process of evaluating the feasibility of developing a Do Not Track Policy," said Claudia Bourne Farrell, a spokeswoman for the FTC. "The FTC has announced that it will be putting forth a privacy framework by the end of the year."

The Do Not Call Registry has more than 150 million telephone numbers logged into the system to prevent unwanted calls from telemarketers, though there are some exceptions such as political campaigns.

But that system simply requires consumers to register the telephone number they want added to the do not call list. Violations of the Do Not Call Registry can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars and into the millions, depending on the severity of the case.

For online privacy, it's more complicated.

"It wouldn't work exactly the same way, where consumers would necessarily provide their IP (Internet Protocol) addresses in the same way consumers provide their phone numbers for do not call," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

The IP address identifies a particular computer on the Internet. So if a person uses a different computer not on a Do Not Track Registry, that might not protect their privacy.

One possibility is for coding to be added to a person's browser that sends a signal to websites that tells the site that the person is on the Do Not Track Registry, said Peter Eckersley, senior technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. But Eckersley says the most important step is to empower the FTC to establish a registry, as technology is constantly changing and will require new tools.

Of course, advertisers do not want restrictions on their ability to reach consumers, so they've been lobbying against a government imposed plan.

But Grant says some kind of structure needs to be developed to give consumers more control over who is tracking them.

"From a policy standpoint I think it's crucial," Grant said. "We feel very strongly that consumers should have the inherent right to decide that they don't want to be tracked."

Until there is a system of better protection online, here's the Edge:

• Check your browser for privacy settings. The "browse privately" settings allow for some Web surfing anonymously, but they have limitations. Still, without any specific rules or regulation, this is a helpful tool.

• Make sure financial information is protected. When making online payments, be sure the Web browser says "https" as opposed to http. The "s" signifies a secure site for imputing payment information.

• Set your browser to delete cookies at the end of each session or at least daily or weekly. This means you will have to fully log into sites you regularly visit, but "it's much harder to track you," Eckersley said.

• Use privacy plug-ins: The Wall Street Journal says, "small programs called 'add-ons' or 'plug-ins' can help maintain privacy." These programs can help you monitor trackers not seen through the browser, while others allow you to delete cookies on a regular schedule, the Journal notes.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Creating a 'do not track' online policy will not be easy 09/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 13, 2010 3:43pm]
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