Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and a host of public interest groups urged the Obama administration to fight for new measures to regulate how Web companies handle users' private data.
The groups, along with dozens of other organizations and companies, submitted comments on Monday to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a Commerce Department agency that will lead discussions about how to better protect consumers' privacy online.
In February, the White House announced the "Privacy Bill of Rights" — a statement of principles about how Web companies should handle user data. The White House tasked NTIA with leading talks between companies and privacy advocates to develop detailed codes of conduct for protecting users online.
But Franken and groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Watchdog, said voluntary guidelines won't be enough to protect privacy.
Consumer Watchdog urged the Commerce Department to propose its own privacy legislation and push Congress to pass it.
"Calls for action in policy papers are easy. The test of commitment is to translate high-minded principles like the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights into real legislative language," the group wrote. It urged the Commerce Department to propose the legislation before moving forward with negotiations with Web companies.
The ACLU said legislation should "remain the central focus" of privacy protections.
The civil liberties group said voluntary codes of conduct "will never be enough on their own."
"Companies cannot bind their competitors, and industries that refuse to participate in the process can take themselves completely outside the authority of the [Federal Trade Commission]," the group wrote.
The ACLU urged the Commerce Department to work with Congress to draft privacy legislation that enforces mandatory rules on industry.
Franken, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, said privacy is a right as "fundamental as our freedom of speech or religion."
"I also believe that it is a right applicable not just against the government, but against the multitudes of companies and third parties that we encounter every day online and in the real world," Franken wrote. "My hope is that the multi-stakeholder process, combined with legislative action, will go a long way in making this right a reality."
Franken, the ACLU and other groups urged NTIA to particularly focus on new rules for mobile applications and facial recognition technology.
But in their comments, companies warned NTIA to focus only on drafting voluntary guidelines, not mandatory rules.
"We believe that robust industry self-regulation coupled with consumer education is the most effective way to protect consumer privacy while fostering innovation," wrote the Digital Advertising Alliance, which represents advertising networks and associations. "We also believe that legislative measures are not sufficiently flexible to address the rapidly developing technological environment and would seriously impede innovation. Accordingly, we support the development and implementation of voluntary codes of conduct for consumer data privacy."
In its comments, Facebook focused only on voluntary privacy guidelines. The social media giant urged NTIA to listen to comments from the companies that rely on social media tools to promote and maintain their businesses. The company also said NTIA should remember that users' privacy expectations depend on the context.
"Consumers' expectations in the context of an online social network where they can select their audience are much different than in a transaction involving sensitive personal information," Facebook wrote.
CTIA, which represents the wireless cellphone carriers, warned that if the administration pushes legislation it risks imposing "inflexible regulatory burdens" that could "stifle technological innovation and discourage the introduction of innovative products and services."
The association said the voluntary codes of conduct should be based on existing industry guidelines.