Privacy Groups Applaud Rockefeller's Do Not Track Bill

Privacy groups and consumer rights advocates have enthusiastically endorsed the Do Not Track bill introduced by U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller.

Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) introduced an online "do not track" privacy bill that would give consumers the ability to block Internet companies from tracking their online activity. The proposed law already has the endorsement of several major consumer advocacy and privacy groups.

The Do Not Track Online Act of 2011 is critical for consumers because recent data breaches have made it clear that companies have too much freedom to collect user data on the Internet, Rockefeller said in his May 6 statement. Rockefeller, the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced the proposed bill to the United States Senate on May 9.

The Consumers Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumer Action, the Center for Digital Democracy and the American Civil Liberties Union all spoke in favor of the bill during a May 9 conference call. The bill offered "crucial civil liberties protection for the 21st century," Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU, said on the call.

"This legislation would give Americans the right and the right tools to browse the Internet without their every click being tracked," Consumer Protection Director Susan Grant said.

The bill, if passed, would force companies to respect a consumer's decision to opt out of data collection. It supports a mandatory browser-based "Do Not Track" mechanism that would allow users to unilaterally opt out of online data collection. The framework would allow the Federal Trade Commission to define the rules within a year of the bill being signed into law.

Rockefeller called the proposed mechanism a "simple, straightforward way" for people to communicate their preferences to companies because they shouldn't have to opt out of every instance of targeted marketing online.

"If consumers don't have the ability to opt out, the result is going to be a detailed portrait of our online activities, and that portrait will be outside our control," Calabrese said.

Many Web companies and marketing professionals have argued that a blanket opt-out would impede innovation and their ability to individually tailor services for their customers. The industry is "policing itself," and the government shouldn't try to dictate how to handle consumer preferences, Steve Minichini, president of interactive at media agency TargetCast told eWEEK. A government-enforced legislation was "unnecessary" and would be "too restrictive." The best way was to let the "money do the talking," since if a company decided to ignore Do Not Track requests, then advertising deals would dry up because of the company's bad reputation, Minichini said.

Minichini noted that Google, Mozilla and Microsoft have all implemented some kind of a Do Not Track option in the latest versions of their Web browsers. The industry moves came shortly after a December FTC report called on the industry to implement the mechanism.

While it was heartening to see the industry coming out with its own solutions, there was no requirement or enforcing companies from complying with user preferences, said Ioana Rusu, regulatory counsel for Consumers Union. Rusu claimed that giving the agency and states' attorneys general the authority to impose civil penalties against the companies that violate the rules was very important.

"This bill will put regulatory support behind these industry initiatives and make sure that online providers listen to the many consumers who want to clearly say -no' to online tracking," said Rusu.

The Rockefeller bill "complements" the online privacy bill introduced by U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and John McCain (R.-Ariz.) in April, Rusu said. The Kerry-McCain bill would require companies to inform users up-front what data was being collected and to provide a clear way to opt out of the collection. Consumer groups and privacy advocates criticized the fact that the Kerry-McCain bill did not explicitly address "do not track" and gave the Commerce Department too much power over regulating consumer online privacy.

The Rockefeller bill is expected to be discussed as an amendment to the Kerry-McCain bill, according to The Hill, a Congressional newspaper.

Rockefeller included mobile phones in the bill and the provisions would apply to mobile phone network operators as well as Websites and online advertising networks. The mobile phone provisions are important in light of recent reports that Apple and Google are tracking user locations using the user's smartphone, according to Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

"This is going to cover iPhone users, Android users, who shouldn't have to worry about being spied on by their smartphones," Court said.

In the House, Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) May 6 released a draft of a separate "Do Not Track" bill aimed at protecting children online. That Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011 would require online companies to obtain parental consent before collecting children's personal information and prohibit them from using minors' data for targeted marketing. It also would limit data collection using geo-location from mobile devices and has provisions for an "Eraser Button" for users to delete publicly available personal data "when technologically feasible."