Busy Time Ahead For Online Privacy

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Next week will be a busy one in Washington for online privacy as at least two bills are expected to be introduced in the House.  Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA, plans to offer Do Not Track legislation and Rep. Bobby Rush, D- IL, is expected to re-introduce his online privacy bill. There's activity outside Congress as well.

Also in the House, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-FL, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, is expected to offer a privacy bill soon.

Consumer Watchdog, and our friends at Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are among the groups making suggestions to Speier on the Do Not Track Bill. It is narrowly tailored to address tracking issues only, rather than the broader question of online privacy.

In the Senate, Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, soon will offer online privacy legislation and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-AR, is working on Do Not Track legislation.

The idea of a Do Not Track function received a major boost in the fall when the Federal Trade Commission endorsed the idea in its report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in Era of Rapid Change."  Comments on the report are due Feb. 18. Consumers are certainly interested in more protection: a Consumer Watchdog poll found that 90% of those polled thought more legal protections for online privacy are important.

In what I'd say is an effort to elbow the FTC aside and assume the lead role on privacy, The Department of Commerce issued its own report, "Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in The Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework."

The business friendly document called for  creation of a privacy office in the Commerce Department — a bad idea — and appeared to assume the view that strong privacy protections will hinder business innovation. The deadline for comments was Jan. 28.  In Consumer Watchdog's comments, I wrote:

"The fact of the matter is that commerce is enhanced when consumers have confidence in the entity with which they are doing business. Knowing that that their privacy is protected will build such trust and will prove to be a win-win for consumers and businesses alike. What sort of long-lasting business model can be built on surreptitiously spying on customers?"

I concluded:

"While it is commendable that  Commerce has raised the issue of consumers’ online privacy, it’s important to note that the Department – as it should – primarily seeks to promote the interests of business. It is not, nor should it be expected to be, the primary protector of consumers’ interests. Commerce, therefore, must not have the lead role in online privacy. That is a role best left to a new independent Privacy Protection Office and the Federal Trade Commission."

It's clear from the business comments on the Commerce report that the online industry is concerned that necessary regulation may come and are doing their utmost to thwart it.

It's also clear from the action in Congress that online privacy is on the legislative agenda. It could well be that this will be an issue where a bipartisan consensus will emerge and meaningful consumer protections will be enacted.

It's certain that Google, Facebook and the rest of the online advertising industry will do their utmost to thwart meaningful regulation. Just as certain is that Consumer Watchdog will be there fighting them.

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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