TORONTO (Reuters) - Online advertisers should make it easy for people to opt out of being tracked online and they should avoid collecting data on children, Canada’s privacy commissioner said on Tuesday.
New guidelines issued by the commissioner, who has already locked horns with Facebook on its privacy rules, deal with behavioral advertising, where online advertising networks watch surfers’ activities and then deliver ads based on their interests.
“We did some consultations last year, and we found that a great percentage of Canadians are concerned about being tracked online without their knowledge or their consent,” Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said in an interview.
The commissioner’s guidelines say online advertisers can track consumers without violating privacy laws, but they must observe certain restrictions. They must, for example, allow people to opt out of being tracked without losing access to a given site or service.
Many advertisers and online retailers oppose restrictions on tracking Internet usage, and some say the curbs could hurt Internet commerce. But John Gustavson, president of the Canadian Marketing Association, praised the guidelines, which he said are similar to the association’s own rules.
“We just have to be careful that we don’t go too far in taking away the economic underpinnings of a lot of free Web content,” Gustavson said. “We would like people not to opt out, but it’s their choice.”
The guidelines are less restrictive than a recent European Union directive that says websites must obtain users’ explicit consent before using cookies, small pieces of text that store information like website preferences and can track users’ movements online.
In a preliminary staff report last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission advocated for a “do not track” system that would limit the ability of advertisers to collect customers’ data.
“Advertising and media industries brought this on themselves by not being transparent about what they do, why they do it, what benefits consumers get from it,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York.
But Jarvis, who makes a case for the social and economic value of sharing information in his recent book, Public Parts, said the commissioner’s guidelines could have unintended consequences for online businesses and media.
“The tracking, so-called, enables the sites to be more relevant, and more effective,” he said. “What the commissioner does perhaps here is devalue the audience of these sites.”
Jarvis said it is the best interests of companies to be clear about what information they collect, but criticized the guidelines for forcing companies to continue to serve consumers who opt out of tracking.
Stoddart was unapologetic about the impact that requirement might have on firms whose primary business is collecting and selling personal information.
“We feel this is a kind of forced consent,” she said. “We think as a business model this runs counter to the direction of Canadian privacy law.”
Surfers can already block cookies through settings in most Web browsers. Stoddart said the industry should not move to technologies that are more difficult or impossible to block.
The guidelines say advertisers should not collect sensitive data like health information, and that “as a best practice,” advertisers should avoid tracking children or tracking activity on sites aimed at children.
Editing by Janet Guttsman and Peter Galloway