Consumer Watchdog Calls For President Obama to Endorse Do Not Track and Online Privacy Legislation During State of the Union Message

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WASHINGTON, DC – Consumer Watchdog today called on President Obama to use the State of the Union message to endorse baseline privacy legislation and support Do Not Track regulations that would give consumers control of whether their information is gathered while they use the Internet.

“You recently expressed your commitment to maintaining freedom of expression on the Internet.  Consumer Watchdog shares that commitment.  Just as important, however, is protecting online privacy. Indeed, without adequate privacy protection freedom of expression ultimately is undermined,” wrote John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project.

Read the letter here:

The open letter to the president continued:

“When you, your wife or your children go online you are all tracked, usually without your knowledge and consent. What you and other people click on, purchase, or share with others is compiled, analyzed and used to build a profile. The online data gathered about people is often used to target advertising, but can also be used to make assumptions about them in connection with employment, housing, insurance, and financial services; for purposes of lawsuits against individuals; and for government surveillance.  At the moment there are no state or federal limits on what information can be collected, with whom it can be shared, how long it can be retained or how it can be used.  Unlike most other countries, there is no baseline privacy law in the United States.  People have virtually no meaningful way to control how data about them is gathered or used…

“As you know, both the Commerce Department and the Federal Trade Commission will soon issue reports recommending online privacy policies.  Industry is lobbying to make these proposals as ineffective as possible, but people should have meaningful privacy protections.  I urge you use the State of the Union message as a vehicle to call for privacy legislation based on the Fair Information Practices principles and that would also provide for a so-called “Do Not Track” mechanism.”

A “Do Not Track” mechanism is a method that allows a computer user to send a clear, unambiguous message that one’s online activities should not be tracked, Consumer Watchdog said. There are a number of ways this could be accomplished.  In fact the “Do Not Track” concept is technology neutral.  It is any method that sends the message to Websites a consumer visits that one’s activities should not be tracked. Simply put, “Do Not Track” is like posting a “No Trespassing” sign on your property. Legislation is necessary so the Do Not Track message is honored, the nonprofit public interest group said.

The letter continued:

“Giving Americans a visible, uncomplicated choice to stop Internet companies from tracking us online will not end online advertising, but it will force advertisers to respect our personal boundaries. If that means fewer targeted sales of Viagra or shady mortgage refinance schemes, so be it.

“The "Do Not Track Me" movement is so important because it sets the principle and precedent of the first real governmental limits on the Wild West of Internet data mining.  It establishes our right to be online without being tracked and makes clear the Internet has become a necessity of life that government must protect.

“Privacy violations are not victimless. Identity theft has run rampant because so much of our personal information is available in so many places. Teenagers are particularly at risk because they tend to share too much information online. And our jobs, familial relationships and friendships can be jeopardized if information about our medical condition, sexual preferences or lifestyle choices is evident and available to anyone who can see the advertisements on our computer screens.”

Consumers are uncomfortable with online tracking and targeting, Consumer Watchdog said. A poll conducted by Grove Insight for Consumer Watchdog in July 2010 revealed that 90 percent of Americans wanted more laws to protect online privacy, 86 percent favored the creation of an “anonymous button” that allows individuals to stop anyone from tracking their online searches or purchase, and 80 percent wanted a “Do Not Track Me” feature for online companies that would be administered by the Federal Trade Commission.

“A ‘Do Not Track’ mechanism would give consumers better control of their information and help restore their confidence in the Internet.  That’s a win-win for consumers and business. I urge you to endorse privacy legislation and ‘Do Not Track’ during the State of The Union message,” Simpson concluded.

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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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