Do Not Track list: How would it work?

Do Not Track list becomes a hot topic this week in Washington, as legislators discuss not just if it's a good idea but how such a list would work.

The Apex Building, FTC headquarters is seen here. Federal regulators are proposing to create a "Do Not Track" list for the Internet so that people could prevent marketers from tracking their Web browsing habits.

When the Federal Trade Commission proposed a computer "Do not track" list this week, the group compared it to the popular "Do not call" list that governs sales calls. Americans should be able to fend off marketers, the commission said, whether they're calling during dinner time or tracking your online purchases and Web history.

But a "Do not track" list will be significantly more complicated to put in place, argued many in Washington yesterday. And imposing such a privacy mechanism may stunt the growth and quality of free content online.

“We need to be mindful not to enact legislation that would hurt a recovering economy,” Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, told the New York Times. He sits on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, which discussed the FTC's idea Thursday. “While I agree it is important to have consumers understand what information is being collected and how it is used, we need to seriously discuss the do-not-track model and evaluate whether it accomplishes the appropriate objectives."

So, if it's passed, how would such a system work? Many proponents of the "Do not track" list imagine it as a feature built into Web browsers. When turned on, marketers could not monitor your online habits, such as which websites you frequent, what items you purchase, or any things you "like" on Facebook.

Currently, many of these actions are saved in databases, creating a digital dossier about you for targeted marketing. Theoretically, this information is helpful for both websites and their customers. Amazon uses the data to suggest products that you're (hopefully) interested in; Facebook profiles you to serve ads that better fit your lifestyle.

If people use the proposed "Do not track" feature, they may inadvertently make the Internet a duller place, said Joseph Pasqua, from the security firm Symantec, in a testimony before yesterday's congressional panel.

“A user with the no-track option enabled may be fed Web sites with limited content, while other users without the option set would see a richer web page and have a more robust browsing experience,” says Mr. Pasqua.

The "Do not track" plan would also hit technical complications. Right now, marketers are crafting countless ways to harvest data on customers. With so many tactics available, the FTC would be hard pressed to keep up with enforcing a restrictions on each. Most likely, every time the government targets one scheme, marketers would all switch over to a new one.

Over to you. Readers, do you want an online "Do not track" list? Is online convenience a substitute for privacy? Let us know in the comments.

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