Yahoo announcement reveals limits of do-not-track

Yahoo's announcement Thursday that it would abide by choices consumers make when it comes to whether they want to receive targeted online ads highlights a disconnect between the privacy concessions that online advertisers and others are willing to make and where the Federal Trade Commission would like them to go.

In a blog post, Yahoo did not specifically say it wouldn't collect any data from consumers who choose to activate the "do-not-track" option that some Internet browsers now offer. Instead, the company said that when users who have activated a "do-not-track" option on their browsers visit websites where Yahoo collects data, the online firm "will no longer score your activities for advertising or content interests and no longer personalize your ads and content based on those interest scores." Yahoo said it would fully implement the proposal this summer.

Yahoo's move on do-not-track is similar to a pledge the Digital Advertising Alliance, which includes Yahoo, Google and many other firms, made when the Obama administration revealed its privacy proposal last month.

For more than a year, the FTC has been asking online companies to give consumers a "do-not-track" choice as they surf the Internet and have data collected about them that can be used to offer them ads based on their personal preferences. Internet browser makers such as Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla responded and now provide consumers with a "do-not-track" option they can click on their browsers. However, privacy advocates argue that this option doesn't mean much if websites don't respect that choice.

While welcoming the steps companies like Yahoo have taken, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said Thursday that the commission would like to see such firms commit to not collecting data from consumers who don't want to be followed as they move from one website to another instead of just offering not to target ads based on their preferences.

"Our belief is not track means do not collect," he told reporters after testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer privacy.

When asked about Yahoo's announcement, Leibowitz said while he hadn't had a chance to review it closely, "it's a step forward. It shows companies want to do the right thing," he said.

During his appearance before the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee, Leibowitz said some tech executives have told him they would like to give consumers a choice about whether they want data collected about them. However, those companies say they are concerned that such a move will put them at a competitive disadvantage to those companies that don't give consumers that choice, he added.