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Q&A: FTC's plans for Internet privacy

If you're worried about all the data Web companies collect on you when you visit their sites - and you should be - you may soon have some new tools to protect your privacy.

If you're worried about all the data Web companies collect on you when you visit their sites - and you should be - you may soon have some new tools to protect your privacy. Here are some answers to how a federal watchdog agency's new plan would work.

First, a recap: The Federal Trade Commission, in a report released last week, said companies should make their privacy policies shorter and easier to understand. The FTC also said companies should make protecting consumers' data a priority, shouldn't retain that data longer than they need, and should let consumers see what data is being collected.

But perhaps most important, the FTC said Web browsers should include a "Do Not Track" mechanism to let users opt out of having websites keep tabs on their online movements.

QUESTION: How do Web companies track consumers' online actions?

ANSWER: Mostly through the use of cookies, which are small text files frequently stored in a Web browser that identify users through a unique number. Marketing firms are able to read that number as you visit various sites and are able to track your movements among them.

Q: Can Web marketers identify individual consumers?

A: Many leading Web marketers say they don't identify consumers by name. But critics say the information gathered by marketers has become so sophisticated and detailed that individuals potentially can be identified.

Q: What can users do to prevent such tracking?

A: There are tools to block tracking but they often are rudimentary, crude or complex. For example, each Web browser allows consumers to delete the cookies stored within them. But clearing them all out at once frequently deletes cookies that consumers might want to keep in place, such as those that free them from having to re-enter their user name and password each time they visit a favorite website.

And even if you delete cookies in your browser, you can still be tracked by other methods that can be more difficult to block.

Some advertisers, such as Google and marketers affiliated with the Network Advertising Initiative, will allow you to opt out of being tracked, but you have to do it on a case-by-case basis through various websites.

Finally, you can set your browser to not accept third-party cookies, the ones typically placed there by advertisers and marketers. You also can set your browser to delete all cookies when you sign off. But some websites and services require you to accept third-party cookies to use them. And deleting cookies at the end of a browsing session often means you would have to re-enter log-in data the next time you visit your favorite sites.

Q: How would the proposed "Do Not Track" feature work?

A: As envisioned by the FTC, it would be a universal setting. Instead of having to seek out the websites or individual marketing companies to ask them not to track you, you would be able to turn on a setting in your browser that would broadcast that message to any and all marketers you encounter in your Web travels.

Consumers might also be able to select what types of marketers they want to track them or what types of advertising they receive. So they might be able to specify that they want to see car ads, but not health-related ones.

Unlike the National Do Not Call Registry, in which the government maintains a list of phone numbers, the "Do Not Track" information would be stored as something akin to a cookie in each individual browser.

Q: But aren't many websites supported by online advertising? Wouldn't this hurt their businesses or force them to raise prices or start charging consumers?

A: Possibly. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, 80 percent of online advertisements are "targeted" _ tailored to individuals based on what marketers know about their past Web surfing. Web marketers argue that advertisers are willing to pay far less for untargeted advertisements and that Web companies may have to make up the difference elsewhere.

Consumer advocates counter that tracking poses hidden costs to consumers because of the ways companies can use their data to target them with particular prices or promotions. And giving consumers greater control over the advertisements they receive could help ensure that advertisers deliver more relevant _ and desired _ messages.

How the FTC proposal actually would affect Web advertising remains to be seen, because the proposal will require either the industry to voluntarily implement it or Congress to make it law. But the proposal indicates just how seriously the federal government is starting to view online privacy.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @troywolv.

(c) 2010, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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