After months of debate and political wrangling, online privacy legislation is now on the table with the introduction of two separate bills in the U.S. House. What are the bills, and how, or even will, they protect you, the Internet user?
The first piece of legislation to hit the House floor came on Thursday from Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) who reintroduced his own privacy bill from the previous congressional session. Rush’s legislation is focused on building federal standards around the ways personal data can be collected and used.
The bill, more specifically, would require advertising firms and Web companies to obtain users’ permission before sharing their personal information with third parties. The opt-out program would be operated by self-regulatory groups and overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, but does not appear to include the specific ‘do not track’ feature that had been recommended.
Just one day later, however, legislation to enforce just such a formal mechanism to regulate online advertising was introduced by Rush’s colleague, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Her legislation, the “Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011,” would require the Federal Trade Commission to develop standards for Web browsers.
Similar to the 2003 “Do Not Call Registry” that prevents telemarketers from calling consumers who don’t want to be contacted, the “Do Not Track” bill would direct the FTC to develop a mechanism for consumers to be able to ‘opt out’ of having their online activity tracked, stored, or shared and require companies to abide by that decision.
“People have a right to surf the web without Big Brother watching their every move and announcing it to the world,” Speier said. “The Internet marketplace has matured, and it is time for consumers’ protections to keep pace.”
The legislation arrives just as browser makers have begun taking their own steps to make it more difficult for advertisers to track user behavior.
Google Inc.’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft Corp.‘s Internet Explorer 9 all have, or will, have consumer protections built in, although critics have faulted features for not being user-friendly nor blocking every type of tracking.
In December, the FTC released a report urging stronger online privacy controls, including a do-not-track mechanism. The Commerce Department also recommended stronger controls but stopped short of recommending legislation.
The House should expect to see more action on online privacy as Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla) is said to be mulling an online privacy bill focused on social networks. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is also expected to present his own privacy legislation soon.