A new consumer privacy bill unveiled by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass. and John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday is already dividing consumer groups, pitting privacy advocates against Consumers Union and big companies such as Microsoft and eBay.
The bill aims to protect consumer privacy by regulating how companies can collect and use personal information. But some groups were furious that it does not include “do-not-track” provisions to give Internet users a one-stop approach to keeping their information private.
The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights would require companies to implement security measures, allow consumers to control what information is collected, and minimize the type and amount of personal information that can be gathered. It also cracks down on third-party companies that trade in consumer information gathered for other services.
“Americans have a right to decide how their information is collected, used, and distributed, and businesses deserve the certainty that comes with clear guidelines,” Kerry said. “Our bill makes fair information practices the rules of the road, gives Americans the assurance that their personal information is secure, and allows our information-driven economy to continue to thrive in today’s global market.”
The bill tasks the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general with enforcing the rules, and also establishes a “safe harbor” program that would allow more flexibility for companies who meet certain benchmark standards.
McCain said that the bill, while imperfect, strikes a reasonable balance between privacy and legitimate information uses.
“Consumers want to shop, browse, and share information in an environment that is respectful of their personal information,” McCain said. “Our legislation sets forth a framework for companies to create such an environment and allows businesses to continue to market and advertise to all consumers, including potential customers.”
Not included in the legislation, however, is a so-called “do-not-track” provision that would allow consumers to block all tracking as they browse the Web. The bill proposes instead that consumers opt out at each individual website.
Kerry said a “robust” opt-out option negates the need for a do-not-track requirement, but that has some consumer advocacy groups worried.
“Consumers should have the right to use the Internet and mobile devices with confidence that their privacy choices are respected, and with anonymity if they choose,” a coalition of advocacy groups wrote in a letter to Kerry and McCain. They also said the bill gives the Commerce Department too much authority and gives special treatment to Facebook and other social media sites.
“We fear this bill could simply enshrine these practices, allowing the continued compilation of vast digital dossiers that can negatively affect consumers in transactions involving their finances, health, and families,” the letter states. Without changes, the group, which includes Consumer Watchdog, says it won’t support the bill.
Other consumer groups, however, joined some businesses in praising the legislation. Consumers Union called it “an important step forward” and companies such as Microsoft, eBay, HP, and Intel have signaled their support.
“We appreciate that this legislation is technology-neutral and allows for flexibility to adapt to changes in technology,” the companies said in a joint statement. “The bill also strikes the appropriate balance by providing businesses with the opportunity to enter into a robust self-regulatory program.”
This article appears in the April 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.