Consumers targeted as they browse online

Don't Track Me

(FOX19) - Talk about spooky! Notice how something you've Googled suddenly pops-up on ads on different sites? You aren't the only one creeped-out by being followed digitally. Many consumers want a way to opt-out of being tracked online.

Online shopper Mario Almonte was shocked the first time he surfed the web for a certain product and then saw an ad for the very same thing when he was browsing another site.

"I suddenly felt like I was being followed," he said, "like you're in a dark alley."

Experts say he's right. Consumers are quietly being followed --- even targeted --- when they browse online. There's even software that allows you to see for yourself how you're being tracked while you surf the web.

"That's all being stored and sold and shared among hundreds of different companies," said privacy analyst Sarah Downey, who's an attorney.

The Federal Trade Commission is pushing to give consumers greater control by creating a "do not track" system. Its goal is to allow you to opt-out of online tracking with the click of a button.

Problem is, right now the definition of "do not track" is still being debated.

"What the FTC has said (is that) do not track should mean that information about where you go on the net (should not be) collected by third parties with narrow exceptions for things like ensuring security," said the FTC's Edward Felten.

But his agency says some digital companies want "do not track" to mean consumers may only opt-out of receiving targeted ads --- not out of data collection.

"If your business model depends on tracking people online then obviously you'd like that to be able to continue," Felten said.

The Direct Marketing Association says it needs to collect some anonymous data to help improve how the web works as well as use it for analytics and market research.

"That's not for targeting," said the association's Linday Woolley. "It's for, if you're a rent-a-car company and you're getting a lot of clicks from a particular area, you might want to open up a new rental car agency in that area."

The Digital Advertising Alliance recently unveiled a self-regulated opt-out program.

You just click on a little icon on behaviorally targeted ads to choose not to get them. But before you do that, keep in mind you'll still see ads --- just not for items you may have searched for recently.

"Most customers don't want random ads about things they're not interested in," said Woolley.

Some web browsers offer new privacy settings which signal to companies you don't want to be tracked.

Mario's giving it a try because, until it's all figured out, he sees it as a way to protect his privacy.

"I don't want them following me," he said.

Right now, the federal government is trying to reach an agreement with web companies to come up with a "do not track" system by the end of this year. But if they can't reach an agreement, Congress may have to get involved.