White House Asks for Do Not Track Legislation

The Obama administration asked Congress to pass a privacy bill of rights implementing a Do Not Track policy for Web browsing and giving users control of their data online in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

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.