EU warns web firms over 'do-not-track' timescale

Neelie Kroes has given online companies a deadline of June 2012 to set a standard to let people opt out of being tracked on the web, saying she will use 'all available means' to ensure privacy

The European Commission has warned web companies that they need to agree on a do-not-track standard by mid-2012, otherwise the Commission will force them to ensure citizens' right to privacy.

Neelie Kroes

European commissioner Neelie Kroes has warned web companies that they need to agree on a do-not-track standard by mid-2012. Photo credit: Neelie Kroes/Flickr

Speaking on Wednesday, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes noted that drafts for a do-not-track (DNT) standard already exist and the advertising industry has already agreed on a code of practice to inform people when sites are tracking them using cookies. However, she said, failure to finalise a DNT standard will have consequences for the web industry.

"DNT is already deployed in some web browsers. And some web businesses say they honour it," Kroes said at an online tracking protection workshop in Brussels. "But this is not enough. Citizens need to be sure what exactly companies commit to if they say they honour DNT. For example, there is an important difference between a commitment not to record tracks and a commitment not to use them for a specific purpose once recorded."

Challenging the industry to agree a DNT standard by June 2012, Kroes said a uniform approach is needed to ensure transparency, fairness and user control.

"If I don't see a speedy and satisfactory development, I will not hesitate to employ all available means to ensure our citizens' right to privacy," she added.

Kroes is working with the US Federal Trade Commission on monitoring the development of DNT technology. The European Commission is particularly interested in the field because Europe's Digital Agenda includes the aim of having half of all Europeans shopping online by 2015. "We will not reach this without reinforcing trust and confidence," she said.

"I am also worried by what we see happening: data breaches affecting thousands if not millions; social-networking sites rolling out new features with very open default settings; exposure, and identity theft," the commissioner said. "Privacy is not just about technical features. Without privacy, consumers will not trust the online world. And without trust, the digital economy cannot reach its full potential."

Targeted advertising

The issue of tracking people as they surf the web has largely bled into the public consciousness due to the work of behavioural advertising companies such as Phorm. The company conducted secret trials with BT five years ago, logging the sites people visited in order to serve them more targeted ads.

The advertising associations Easa and IAB Europe recently adopted a 'best practice recommendation and framework' on behavioural advertising, Kroes noted approvingly.

"Their approach consists of an icon on each targeted ad, coupled with an information website that allows the user to switch off behaviourally targeted display ads from any participating company," Kroes explained. "What I like about this solution is that it is active. Industry is not just saying — as some unfortunately still do — that all is fine because users can disable cookies in their web browsers. Instead, a vital section of the online industry has understood that the ePrivacy Directive is addressed to them and requires action."

However, Kroes noted, cookies are not the only way to track surfers — browser add-ons and the 'fingerprinting' of browser configurations also need to be taken into account. This is why a broader approach needs to be taken on the subject of DNT technologies, she argued.

Kroes especially hopes to see the online advertising industry taking part in the DNT discussions "because of its experience and because the self-regulation, which is currently based on cookie technology, will need to address DNT as well", she said.

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