Google, Microsoft, Yahoo aim to defuse privacy issue with 'Do Not Track' button

Web companies including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft agreed to voluntarily create a "Do Not Track" button on Thursday, a move that could help the companies ward off new government regulations.

The groups, along with hundreds of other advertising companies in the Digital Advertising Alliance, promised to work with the major Web browsers to create a button that will allow users to opt out of tracking by Internet advertisers with a single click.

Stu Ingis, the Digital Advertising Alliance's general counsel, said the feature will likely be available within nine months.

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Web companies have come under increasing scrutiny for how they collect and handle users' personal information. Companies like Google and Facebook offer their services for free and rely on targeted advertisements to generate revenue.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz had for months been pushing Web companies to implement a Do Not Track option, and had warned that if companies did not adopt the feature voluntarily, Congress could force them through legislation.

Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) have been pushing the Do Not Track Kids Act, which would restrict online marketing to children and create an "Eraser Button" for users to delete information that companies gather about them.

Thursday's announcement seemed to satisfy Leibowitz.

“It’s great to see that companies are stepping up to our challenge to protect privacy so consumers have greater choice and control over how they are tracked online," Leibowitz said. "More needs to be done, but the work they have done so far is very encouraging.”

The companies' commitment to create a "Do Not Track" button coincided with the White House's declaration of a "Privacy Bill of Rights"— a set of principles for how companies should handle user information.

The administration plans to lead negotiations between privacy advocates and Web companies to establish an industry code of conduct based on the Privacy Bill of Rights. The code of conduct will be voluntary, but the FTC can bring charges against any company that agrees to the privacy standards and then violates them. 

"[The privacy agreements] were clearly in response to regulatory pressure from Europe, the FTC and state attorneys general," Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Hill.

But he argued that by focusing on privacy issues, the companies could actually build momentum for privacy legislation rather than defuse the issue.

The Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer privacy group, called the announcement an "important development" but urged lawmakers to keep up the pressure on privacy.

"Instead of negotiations, CDD would have preferred the White House to introduce new legislation that clearly protected consumers online," the group said in a statement. "We should not allow Do Not Track to be hijacked by the data collection industry."