Leading into this week’s FTC town hall meeting addressing the growing concerns about Internet and search companies developing the means to track and profile users, AOL has announced plans to enable users to sign up for “do-not-track” lists similar to the popular “do-not-call” lists removing phone numbers from telemarketer databases. Users will be able to opt-out of tracking by the largest advertising networks. The site’s technology will also apparently ensure that people’s preferences are not erased later.
(I’m guessing this will be done via a cookie, so each user’s particular browser will need to be registered. How it deals with erased cookies, I’m not sure. If anyone knows the technical details, please let me know.) Some technical details are discussed here.
Of course, AOL will try to convince users that having their online habits tracked is actually a good thing: “The AOL site will try to persuade people that they should choose to share some personal data in order to get pitches for products they might like”
Therein lies the problem by leaving the fox in charge of providing the hens protection. AOL, like more web services, has a specific interest in collecting user data, and while providing a means for users to opt-out is a very positive move, it is only natural that they would try to convince interested users otherwise. A better solution is to have a easily recognizable and independent site for users to opt-out (not unlike https://www.donotcall.gov/), something that perhaps the FTC will take on themselves.
UPDATE: It was wrong to describe this as an AOL-driven service. A group of privacy advocates are calling for the creating of the “Do-Not-Track” list — AOL merely plans to provide access to the list. More details here.