Senate Bill Would Bar Advertisers from Tracking Your Online Moves

Microsoft and Mozilla have already taken steps, but a proposed Do-Not-Track Online Act would legally obligate advertisers to respect consumers' privacy wishes.

A bill introduced in the Senate May 9 would give American consumers the right to shop online, voice dissenting opinions and visit racy Websites without leaving a digital trail. In short, they would be able to opt out of having their online activities tracked, both on a PC and a mobile browser.

"Recent reports of privacy invasions have made it imperative that we do more to put consumers in the driver's seat when it comes to their personal information," Sen. John D. Rockefeller, (D-W.Va.), sponsor of the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011, said in a statement. "I believe consumers have a right to decide whether their information can be collected and used online. This bill offers a simple, straightforward way for people to stop companies from tracking their movements online."

If passed, the bill would, first, legally obligate online companies to honor consumers' choices about whether they want information collected about their online activities. Second, it would empower the Federal Trade Commission to pursue action against any company that fails to honor a consumer's choice.

Lastly, if a consumer allowed a company to collect information necessary for the site or online service to "function and be effective," it would then "place a legal obligation on the online company to destroy or anonymize the information once it is no longer needed."

The bill is similar to a Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011 that was sponsored in February by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif). Speier also introduced a bill that would give consumers more control over the financial information that banks and other financial institutions collect about them.

Microsoft's Bing and Mozilla's Firefox browsers are designed to enable users to block advertisers from tracking the sites they visit, but without a law, such as the one the Rockefeller bill hopes to enact, advertisers and marketers aren't obligated to honor no-tracking requests.

During a May 9 conference call on the introduction of the bill, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union said, "All along, the message we've given is that we want e-commerce to grow ... but we want it to grow [in conjunction with] a meaningful amount of personal privacy."

The introduction of the bill comes on the eve of the first hearing of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, prompted by consumer backlash against the location-data collection of Apple iPhones and some phones running Google's Android OS. The hearing will assemble representatives from Google, Apple, the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice, among other organizations, in the interest of looking into whether federal laws protecting consumers' privacy are keeping pace with advances in technology, particularly as smartphone and media tablet adoption continues to quicken.

Both the hearing and Rockefeller bill address a growing sense of digital impotence on the part of consumers. While many are aware that information is being collected, few realize to what extent or understand to what end.

"Consumers have a right to know when and how their personal and sensitive information is being used online," Rockefeller said in a statement, "and most importantly to be able to say 'no thanks' when companies seek to gather that information without their approval."