While it is becoming increasingly clear that Congress is unlikely to act on privacy legislation this year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they fear consumers will lose trust in e-commerce and other online activities.
“Enough is enough,” Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said during a hearing on Thursday of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. “We have 240 million Americans who use the Internet every day. Each of these 240 million are entitled, in my opinion, to a right of privacy,” Barton said.
“At some point, the hearings have to come to [an] end and we need to move ahead,” agreed Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Even some industry players say lawmakers need to provide basic privacy protections. “Consumer trust is critical to the adoption of online services,” Microsoft Associate General Counsel Michael Hintze told the panel.
Still, after four hearings on the issue, subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., said she still has more questions and may hold another hearing on privacy, perhaps in November. “Despite everything that I have heard in our previous hearings, I still remain somewhat skeptical right now of both industry and government,” Bono Mack said.
While Bono Mack has not ruled out legislation, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is among those lawmakers who oppose any congressional intervention, saying the private sector is better equipped to respond to consumer’s privacy needs quickly and in a way that does not hamper the growth of online advertising. She said data should be treated as a natural resource open to the free market to explore.
Representatives for the online advertising industry said personalized ads are important to help pay for free content on the Internet. Spending on e-mail and Internet marketing is expected total $30 billion this year and generate $639 billion in U.S. sales, Direct Marketing Association Executive Vice President Linda Woolley said. She and other industry officials say consumers prefer ads based on their interests, which are compiled by tracking consumers as they surf the Web.
Woolley also said industry has responded to concerns over privacy by developing a self-regulatory program that uses a clickable icon placed on online ads that leads consumers to a website where they can opt out of being hit by targeted online ads.
Privacy advocates, however, note that the program does not allow consumers to opt out of having information collected about them as they surf the Web. World Privacy Forum Executive Director Pam Dixon said consumers want clear, easy-to-understand information about what data is being collected about them and how it is being used, as well as a choice on whether they want to be tracked online.
“We support legislation that would protect consumers,” Dixon said. “The reality check is we don’t see any likelihood of that happening in the near future.” Given this, Dixon said industry self-regulatory efforts need to be improved and consumers should be given a permanent role in helping to craft such programs.