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Technology / TECHNOLOGY

Online Privacy Concerns Fuel Drive For 'Do-Not-Track' Legislation

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., plans to introduce an online-privacy bill that, among other things, would let people block firms' collection of unnecessary data.(Liz Lynch)

photo of Josh Smith
May 6, 2011

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., will introduce an online-privacy bill next week that will include a controversial “do-not-track” provision letting consumers block companies from collecting unnecessary information.

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

He said his “simple, straightforward” bill will create a universal legal obligation for companies to let consumers prevent tracking; require companies to destroy information when it is no longer needed; and give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to enforce the privacy rules.

 

Also Friday, Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, unveiled a discussion draft of a bill designed to protect the privacy of children online.

“Every day we hear of new accounts of consumers' personal information being mishandled and misused including our most vulnerable population – children,”  Barton said in a statement. “We have reached a troubling point in the state of business when companies that conduct business online are so eager to make a buck, they resort to targeting our children."

The House bill also includes a do-not-track provision demanded by consumer advocates. Do-not-track legislation in California has been opposed by companies such as Google and Yahoo.

Lawmakers fired off a string of angry letters and promised legislative fixes after reports that some smartphones were tracking and recording their users’ locations, and after hackers stole personal information from several major companies, including Sony and the marketing firm Epsilon.

In April, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a more-comprehensive consumer-privacy bill that didn't have an antitracking requirement. Instead, it would allow consumers to opt out of tracking on each website they visit.

Rockefeller’s bill may help satisfy consumer-advocate groups disappointed that the Kerry-McCain legislation lacked a do-not-track provision.

"Demand for do-not-track protection is swelling and that makes sense," said John Simpson, spokesman for the group Consumer Watchdog. "This is an idea whose time has come, and I believe people will finally get the protection they are demanding. Senator Rockefeller should be commended for pushing the issue."

The House legislation was praised by the Center for Digital Democracy and by Common Sense Media, but the proposal provoked a more wary reaction from Emma Llanso, a free-speech fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology. She said that by aiming to separate children, the bill could end up hurting more than it helps.

"By identifying a user’s age, you have a privacy bill that actually requires users to provide more information than they usually would," Llanso said. She said its so-called eraser-button provision also raises serious questions about being able to "go back and edit the public record."

Rockefeller said he will hold a hearing on mobile privacy this month.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, will also be examining privacy and mobile technology at a hearing on Tuesday. On Friday, Franken announced a witness list that includes representatives of the FTC, Department of Justice, Google, Apple, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Association for Competitive Technology.

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