What the U.S. FTC’s ‘Do Not Track’ List Means to You and Your Kids

Posted on 09. Dec, 2010 by in For Parents, For Teachers

By Lynette T. Owens

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is pushing for consumer privacy legislation that would give you the ability to stop websites from tracking your surfing habits.   Sites track you partly to make your surfing experience easier – remembering what you last looked at on a shopping site, in case you want to look at it again – and to show you ads that are more likely to be of interest to you.

The proposal, called the ‘Do Not Track’ List, shares its name with the ‘Do Not Call’ registry which prevents telemarketers from calling you if your number is on that list.  But that’s as far as the similarities go.  Unlike the ‘Do Not Call’ registry, the FTC proposal recognizes the benefits to tracking, so it instead calls for user-choice in deciding which sites can or cannot track you.

It specifically calls for a feature that is ideally part of your web browser, where you can enable a setting that tells the browser if a site can track you.  And Microsoft has recently responded to this with a feature called Tracking Protection that will be in IE9 (currently in beta).  It will let you create a list of sites you don’t want tracking your online activities and block them from doing so.

As a busy working mom, I’m not all that worried about being tracked online for legitimate reasons.  I do a lot of shopping online (thank you, Peapod) and love the convenience of having items that I’ve bought before presented to me up front.  And the ads?  I’d prefer to know about products that are similar or complementary to things I buy.  I don’t have time to discover them on my own.

As for my kids, I only have one issue.  If they’re online, they’re going to be on age-appropriate sites.  And most of those sites are maintained by reputable companies.  But I do care if they’re on a site and age-inappropriate ads show-up.  It’s a rare occurrence in my experience, but I’ve seen ads for credit cards and dating services on sites that are presumably designed for kids as young as 8 (Neopets.com is my favorite example of this).  These sites don’t seem to care who their audience is – they’ll take the advertising money from anyone.  This is a case where tracking and targeted advertising would be a very good thing.

The FTC proposal does discuss many other issues related to online privacy beyond the ‘Do Not Track’ list.  It calls for privacy to be considered from the beginning as part of technical design, and puts special attention on the privacy of kids.  Bravo for this.  It also demands that privacy policies be much more consumer-friendly (many adults don’t read them, much less kids). The privacy policy of the world’s most heavily used social networking sites (hint: starts with ‘F’ and ends in ‘book’) is a whopping 6,000+ words.  And, it calls for greater public education about online privacy.  I second that.

So with all of the attention to online privacy and potential changes to the technologies we use everyday, parents should be aware of what this really means:

1 – A browser doesn’t equal a person.  In my house, the family computer and web browser are shared by many people.  So I’m not sure how a do not track setting in our browser really helps the individual, especially on sites that don’t require you to login.  Regardless, don’t mistake a Do Not Track browser setting for being completely safe.  Teach your kids safe online surfing habits and always, always use up-to-date security software.

2 – Privacy is in the eye of the surfer.  I like that Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are free.  I think many millions feel the same.  But while I don’t pay for them someone does: the advertisers.  For this balance to exist I give up something and that is information.   Whether it’s my online activity or an email address, I exchange something that makes it worth it for advertisers to invest the way they do.  But I only give out the absolute minimum necessary, and I tell my kids to do the same.

3 – It’s non-legitimate tracking you should worry about.  Advertisers track you and your kids to sell you something.  Cybercriminals track you to steal something.  While we need to teach kids to protect their own privacy and reputation online, we need to also teach them how to protect their information from hackers and identity thieves.  Advise them to stick to reputable sites, post and share as little personal identifying information as necessary, and make sure any internet-connected device they are using has up-to-date security software.

For more Internet safety advice and tips, go to www.trendmicro.com/internetsafety

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2 Responses to “What the U.S. FTC’s ‘Do Not Track’ List Means to You and Your Kids”

  1. Cindy

    10. Dec, 2010

    Thank you for this post Lynette! I read this article (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703904304575497903523187146.html) in the Wall Street Journal recently about the tracking that occurs on children’s websites and was alarmed by some of the information they provided. Like anything – it all comes down to each of us doing our own due diligence though and not relying on these companies and websites to take care of us.

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