Online tracking rules must exclude research, says CMOR

Industry association urges FTC to clarify definitions for regulating online tracking

Author: Robert Bain

Published on the 21st April 2008

US-- Industry association CMOR is calling for research to be made exempt from definitions of 'behavioural tracking', as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) drafts principles for regulating online behavioural advertising.

CMOR said in a submission to the FTC that although it supports "most of the concepts and goals" underpinning the principles, the specific proposals "could have significant negative consequences for the survey and opinion research profession, and strangle many possible new methods of research before they've even been conceived".

It called on the FTC, which published the principles and invited comment on them in January, to "flesh out and clarify" its broad definition of behavioural advertising, to ensure that it does not restrict tracking for legitimate research purposes.

FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell told Research: "We're reviewing the comments and contemplating what steps we should take."

CMOR expressed similar concerns about proposals from consumer groups for a 'do-not-track' list, which were put to the FTC in October last year.

The groups behind the do-not-track idea have claimed it does not target researchers, but CMOR's director of government affairs Howard Fienberg said: 'If that's the case they need to make that explicit.'

CMOR said that in the form proposed, the list 'would make no useful distinction between tracking data collected for research, transactional, political, governmental, or commercial/sales purposes'.

Some consumer groups were not convinced by CMOR's arguments for protecting research. In his blog, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy called the submission 'self-serving' and said "researchers can't be given a free pass to push the limits of data mining in the digital era".

Fienberg warned that it's a "very short step" from self-regulatory guidelines to regulation being imposed by lawmakers. Moves are already afoot in Connecticut and New York to introduce regulation of behavioural advertising, and other states may soon follow, he said.

George Pappachen, director of privacy and public policy at Safecount, which seeks to promote methods of web measurement that don't threaten privacy, pointed out that research can be a powerful force in favour of consumer privacy. "The opportunity is to understand consumers to the point of knowing what they'll accept and what they won't accept," he said. "On one hand we want to educate the marketplace but on the other hand we want to bridge the gap between consumers and the marketplace."

When it comes to building public understanding and support, Pappachen believes the online research industry has a lot of work to do. "The ordinary person probably doesn't understand it nearly as well as they need to," he said. "Marketing is not the research industry's strong suit. It's not something that's been high on their agenda but it's definitely something they need to focus on."

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