Fellow Ryan Calo discusses the potential future of a new "do not track" software, which was created by a pair of Stanford researchers:
As a government agency pushes for a "do not track" mechanism to protect online consumer privacy, a pair of Stanford researchers is developing the technology to make it work.
For about four months before Wednesday's release of the Federal Trade Commission's recommendations for increasing Internet privacy, Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan have been creating software that would let users opt out of third-party web tracking and tell advertisers to stop following them online.
"People get creeped out by some of the advertising that happens online," said Mayer, who is working toward a PhD in computer science and a law degree. "What concerns us is if you're on a site like Amazon and you go looking for shoes, then someone tells a behavioral advertising service that you've been looking for shoes. So the next time you're off on another shopping site, they'll ask if you're still looking for shoes. It feels invasive."
"At the end of day, Congress would probably have to pass a law empowering the FTC to enforce this," said Ryan Calo, director of the Consumer Privacy Project for Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. Mayer is a student fellow at the center, and Narayanan – a postdoctoral researcher in computer science – is a junior affiliate scholar at the center.
"The FTC could also say they are responsible for policing the Internet for deceptive and unfair practices, so if a consumer says he doesn't want to be tracked and you track him, that can be seen as an unfair practice," Calo said. "But to get the proper amount of teeth behind something like this, you really need Congress to act."
"We always thought Do Not Track was a great technical idea, and it has a real impact that's feasible," Mayer said. "Now having the FTC say it's a good idea – you just can't ask for more than that on a research project."