The Federal Trade Commission recently issued its "best practices" guidelines for businesses to protect American consumers' online privacy. The FTC has also urged Congress to turn these guidelines into law.
But government-led privacy protection won't happen overnight. The FTC has targeted five privacy measures it wants to see put in place by the end of the year, including:
- A universal "Do-Not-Track" tool that you could activate to prevent companies from recording your online activities and using them to display personalized advertising. Consumers would only have to opt-in once and companies would be required to comply — a big improvement over the piecemeal approaches currently available.
- Standard disclosures for mobile apps so users know exactly what data an app will access and how it will be used. For instance, if an app would use your contact list, you'd know that before you downloaded it. California has already called for this type of disclosure.
- A new website that would identify companies called data brokers who collect and sell your information to advertisers. The site would make it easy to see what information has been collected about you and who is using it.
The FTC also wants to set uniform privacy standards for big platforms such as Google and Facebook, and establish enforceable "industry-specific codes of conduct. But these two haven't reached the same "actionable" stage as the first three.
It's a lot for the FTC to tackle, and a lot can happen — or not — in nine months. Meanwhile, if you'd like to take online privacy protection into your own hands, we've got tips for you, starting with a "privacy lite" option — using an available Do-Not-Track tool — to "going dark" by being fully anonymous online.
- Install a Do-Not-Track feature in your browser. While third parties have long offered these types of browser plug-ins or extensions, Google recently released its own version, "Keep My Opt-outs" for Chrome. Once it's installed, your activities should not be tracked and used for personalized advertising. These plug-ins send a "signal" to websites that tell them you don't want to be tracked. However, like joining the national "Do Not Call" list against telemarketers, there are no guarantees that companies will honor your opt-out.
- Use an alternative high-security browser plug-in. Cocoon is a free browser plug-in that works with Firefox and Internet Explorer on Windows or Mac. With a single click, you enter a "safe browsing zone" that prevents websites from installing tracking cookies, shields your IP address so they don't recognize your computer and generates anonymous email addresses to use for signing up on websites. The free version of Cocoon itself has ads, though they don't rely on tracking. This week, it launched a $5 a month ad-free premium plan, Cocoon Plus.
- The privacy-obsessed can use an all-in-one "secret browser" such as Tor (known as the onion router for its layers of security). You must launch an Internet session with Tor, avoiding your usual browser altogether. But taking this drastic route can feel like you've landed on another planet — video blocked, no access to social media and no Google.