News Analysis: New Internet privacy bill would put teeth into previous attempts to give consumers control over how their activities are tracked online. But Web users shouldn't count on the law to provide perfect privacy.
By now you're probably aware that nearly every Website you visit keeps track of at least some of your activities while you're on that site. Even this site, eWEEK.com, will keep track of whether you voted to rate an article, and if you have, will prevent you from voting again.
Some tracking is both obvious and necessary and has legitimate purposes. On a commerce site, it might help to keep track of what you're buying, for example.
But not every site tracks in an obvious way. And while new versions of Microsoft and Mozilla browsers allow you to set a "Do Not Track" flag, Websites aren't obligated to follow your wishes. Now, a bill introduced into the U.S. Senate by John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.VA) would legally obligate sites to honor that request, and put some muscle behind it. As eWEEK's Michelle Maisto explained
in her news story, the Federal Trade Commission would be given the enforcement power it's been requesting.
The Senate bill is similar to a bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif). Both bills have fundamental differences from a bill introduced this year by U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.)
that would put enforcement into the hands of the Commerce Department and which also did not have a Do Not Track provision. A number of privacy groups have expressed concern about the power
given to the Commerce Department under the Kerry/McCain bill.
Because of the similarity between the two Do Not Track bills, there's a high likelihood that they would move forward in substantially the same form if the bills are passed by both houses. President Barack Obama has already said
he wants to see some sort of online consumer-protection bill from Congress this year.
The problem with the Do Not Track legislation currently making its way through Congress is that it's very difficult for consumers to know when a site is tracking them, what information the site is gathering and what the site is doing with that information once it has it. Unfortunately, neither of these bills is likely to add any sort of transparency to the tracking technology Websites are using.
What's likely to happen is that legitimate sites will do as you'd expect. They'll obey the law and honor the Do Not Track requests when they're implemented in the browser. Since the top three browsers-Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari-are expected to use an opt-out mechanism developed by Mozilla, implementation should be fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, not every Website or commercial entity is likely to honor the effort to opt out of tracking.