White House Asks for Do Not Track Legislation

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-03-16

White House Asks for Do Not Track Legislation

The Obama administration wants Congress to pass an Internet privacy bill that will control how much information Internet marketing firms can collect as people surf the Internet.

Lawrence E. Strickling, an assistant secretary of commerce, proposed the legislation at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on March 16, according to Capitol Hill's "Hillicon Valley" blog. Internet privacy legislation should follow the guidelines outlined in a Commerce Department report released last December, he said.

The Commerce Department report accused Facebook, Google and other Web companies of not being up front with customers about what information was being collected and shared with advertisers. The Commerce Department suggested companies ask for permission before using personal data.

Any kind of Internet privacy bill would need to expand the Federal Trade Commission's powers so that the regulatory agency would be able to enforce the new provisions, Strickling said.

The administration also wants to see a "privacy bill of rights" to prevent information from being used for any purpose unless the customer gives explicit permission, he said. Under the proposal, Web services will no longer be legally able to sell information that the user entered on an online registration form by default.

The bill should also require Internet companies to store the information securely but still allow users to access their information at any time, according to Strickling. However, he did not go into much detail about how much, or which, information would need to be displayed. Many sites already offer users the ability to review registration information, but almost no sites have a mechanism for users to see the information collected by browser cookies. The user's visited sites, location and Internet address are a valuable source of information for data miners.

There are already privacy bills under way in the Senate, sponsored by Senators John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

At the hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill asked about the economic impact and "unintended consequences" if tough limitations are imposed on online companies.

"If consumers have more trust on the Internet, they are going to do more business on the Internet, as well," Leibowitz said.

The FTC called for a Do Not Track system developed by the private sector in December. The latest moves by Microsoft and Mozilla in their Web browsers show this is a "viable" option, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said at the hearing.

"Consumers deserve meaningful and not illusory control over what companies can do with their personal information," he said. 

Interest Groups Jostle for Position


Mozilla introduced a "Do Not Track" feature in Firefox 4, currently available as a Release Candidate. The browser sends special header information for every HTTP page request for users who mark the checkbox for "Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked" under Firefox's Advanced Options. Microsoft implemented a similar feature, called "Do Not Track Users Preference," in Internet Explorer 9.

Mozilla wants to get a conversation started about "Do Not Track" and how Websites and ad networks can honor user requests for privacy, Jonathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox development, told eWEEK. The company can help facilitate the discussion, he said.

According to the Wall Street Journal, about 30 online advertising companies, including Exponential Interactive, Burst Media, Audience Science, Casale Media and Specific Media, are in talks with browser companies to add a checkbox option to turn off data collection. Another Internet marketing firm is experimenting with putting a button inside ads to notify users they're being targeted. Clicking on that button would opt the user out of dozens of companies' networks at once, according to the news article.

Six public interest groups-Consumer Watchdog, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Action, US PIRG and the World Privacy Forum-jointly warned that a "multi-stakeholder process" to develop rules for online privacy would be dominated by the industry. Users will not be adequately protected unless the effort is organized in a "fair and balanced" manner, the groups said.

Any meaningful privacy legislation should direct the Federal Trade Commission to create and enforce the privacy mechanism, according to Consumer Watchdog. The industry should "inform, not replace," rulemaking, the groups said.

Congress should be very wary politically defining "Do Not Track," and continue to steer clear of trying to regulate online activity, said Wayne Crews, vice president for Policy and director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research think tank in Washington, D.C. The proposed restrictions would impede business transactions, undermine the advertising industry, stifle innovation in the mobile space and "needlessly" make customers nervous, he said.

The legislation is unnecessary because "major industry participants" are already developing their own mechanisms, said Crews.

"The right to use information acquired through voluntary transactions is no less important than the right to decide whether to disclose information in the first place," Crews said.

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