Privacy Advocates Say McCain-Kerry Bill Falls Short

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Consumer privacy advocates aren't blasting the online privacy bill introduced by Senators John McCain and John Kerry; but they aren't completely on board either.

While major tech companies like HP and Microsoft approve of the bill, consumer privacy advocates are more guarded. Consumer Watchdog and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) are saying it's merely a "good start."

"More needs to be done to safe guard consumers," said Sharon Goott Nissim, consumer privacy counsel at EPIC. "The loopholes in the bill should be closed."

EPIC would like to see a requirement for "fair information practices" for all collection of personal information, ensuring full enforcement authority for attorneys general, making the definition of personally identifiable information include information that can be re-identified and ensuring that the Federal Trade Commission can investigate and prosecute unfair and deceptive trade practices.

"The Google Buzz decision was a good example of an effective FTC enforcement," Nissim said. In that case the FTC was able to force Google to accept privacy audits. EPIC also wants the loopholes for behavioral targeting closed.

Nissim says she doesn't necessarily see "Do Not Track" as the solution. "Do Not Track is not the be all end all," Nissim said. "It depends on how Do Not Track is implemented. Approaches from the industry are far less protective and less robust than other approaches. Also, Do Not Track covers one aspect of where we think consumer privacy is being violated. It covers that targeted advertisement and tracking, there's a lot more that needs to be covered." Not having a specific technology like "Do Not Track" in the proposed law is actually a good thing, says Nissim.

But not everyone agrees with her assessment. "We strongly believe that any privacy bill should direct the Federal Trade Commission to require and enforce a "Do Not Track Me" mechanism. Consumers should have the right to use the Internet and mobile devices with confidence that their privacy choices are respected, and with anonymity if they choose," John M. Simpson, president of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, wrote in a letter to Senators McCain and Kerry.

The consumer advocacy group also accuses the bill of having a special interest in Facebook and other social media marketers. It says it permits those companies to gather data without sufficient safeguards. Consumer Watchdog does agree with EPIC that the FTC should have the authority to limit data collection and enforce transparency. The group disagrees with the bill's decision to usurp the FTC's authority and turn it over to the Commerce Department.

"It is important to note that the Commerce 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," Simpson wrote in the letter.

The advertising industry has also criticized the bill. The Direct Marketing Association, which represents organizations that use multichannel direct marketing tools and techniques, says the bill is too strong and could undercut the economy.

"DMA is wary of any legislation that upsets the information economy without a showing of actual harm to consumers. Information has been a driver of competition in our economy for over 100 years," Linda Woolley, DMA's executive vice president, said in a statement. "This bill would have wide-ranging effects — not just on the Internet, but on all of the economy, such as retailers, banks, hotels, and mailers."

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