TECH
12/14/2010 02:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz On The Cyber-Stalkers Violating Our Privacy

Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz is not happy with the Web's current state of affairs.

"Although there are some good actors in this area, Internet privacy is a mess," he told The Huffington Post in an interview Monday.

The most concrete recommendation for remedying online privacy outlined in the FTC's report on the issue was a "do not track" system that would allow users to prevent websites from collecting information about their browsing behavior.

As the FTC hopes to rally support for its proposal from consumers, advertisers, content providers, and others, Leibowitz translated the privacy problem into terms even the most Luddite web surfer could understand.

He evoked a trenchcoat-wearing stranger stalking your window shopping to explain the trouble with cookies, a tech term arcane to most that describes a means of tracking one's activity online and is at the heart of the "do not track" debate.

Imagine you're walking around New York City's SoHo neighborhood, Leibowitz said, and "There's a guy following you and he doesn't know exactly your name, but he knows where you live. He's sending out emails to stores in front of you: he wants to buy a jacket, he's using a MasterCard."

"If he's following you, I think you'd be kind of troubled by that and if he's following your 13 or 15 year-old daughter, you'd want to punch him out," Leibowitz continued. "[The] notion that someone can embed software in your computer and track you around, it's a violation of your privacy."

Those who make their living serving up ads on the Internet dismiss the accusation that their product amounts to a violation of privacy. They direct specific ads to individual Web surfers based on a reading of what other pages someone has visited, but this they portray as a consumer convenience. What the FTC now brands a concern worthy of regulation they sell as a practical solution that allows sites like Facebook and AOL to tailor their promoted content to individual visitors.

The FTC's plan aims to give consumers control over their information by empowering them to choose whether a site can or cannot collect data about their interests, preferences, and browsing patterns. While users currently have the means of masking their digital footprints, the tools can be tricky for the less technical to take advantage of.

But despite some vocal opponents, Leibowitz said the consumer protection agency's recommendation is attracting some unlikely allies from the very organizations that could stand to lose from a "do not track" option making its way onto the Internet.

"I am told that there is a schism brewing within the Internet advertising community and perhaps even within the IAB [Interactive Advertising Bureau] about companies that actually think the practice of third party tracking is a bad one," he explained.

In its efforts to rein in the information free-for-all on the web, the agency is not only making suggestions, but also cracking down. Although the FTC cannot comment on active investigations, Leibowitz hinted that the agency was in the process of investigating privacy violations and would be bringing cases to light "over the next few months."

While hardly the Internet's worst privacy offender, Facebook is the website that illustrates for many on a deeply personal level the risk of trusting the Internet with too much. The social network's changes to its privacy policy, which triggered a wave of criticism and even boycotts when the site announced it would allow users' information to appear on third party sites, have not gone unnoticed by the FTC.

"We've [...] watched as they [Facebook] have changed a variety of settings that have arguably caused harm to consumers by making data public that I think many consumers thought would not be," said Leibowitz.

He disagreed with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's assessment that privacy is no longer a "social norm" in the digital age. "I have a lot of respect for the founder of Facebook, but I think privacy is still a critically important for American consumers," he said.

Liebowitz also endorsed proposed recent new rules from the Federal Communications Commission aimed at barring large Internet providers from impeding Web traffic flowing to sites that partner with competitors.

Though critics have argued that the FCC's plan is riddled with loop holes, the FTC Chairman portrayed them as the best that could be hoped for given the need to balance competing interests.

He turned a more critical eye on the net neutrality debate, seeing little truth to the "dystopian future" dreamed up by net neutrality's advocates and opponents.

"There's a little disconnect between the reality of net neutrality and the big fight of net neutrality," said Leibowitz.