A California state senator on Monday unveiled a bill that would force Internet companies doing business in the state to allow local consumers to opt out of online monitoring, adding to the building momentum behind a "Do Not Track" mandate.
During a morning news conference in Sacramento, Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said his proposed legislation would call on the California attorney general to force affected businesses to provide users a way to avoid having their personal information and online activity tracked, if they so choose.
"We think this is a reasonable and thoughtful way to provide consumers greater control over their own data," Lowenthal said.
A trade group for the digital marketing industry, however, found it anything but reasonable. Mike Zaneis, general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said the proposal is inherently unconstitutional.
He argued that the Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, not states, and that the Internet is interstate by its very definition.
Beyond that, Zaneis said Do Not Track legislation is a blunt instrument that fails to appreciate technical realities about how the Internet works, and could affect the online experience in ways consumers don't expect. Read strictly, SB761 would prevent companies from collecting innocuous information like the Web browser being used and time of day, he said. That would make it highly difficult to properly display the page or show, say, timely traffic and weather content.
An array of Internet firms like Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. collect data about users' online behavior to serve up the sort of advertisements they're most likely to click on. The information generally isn't connected to actual names, but the practice has nonetheless grown increasingly controversial, as it's become clear how much data is gathered and how much it reveals.
A number of advocacy groups are backing the bill, including Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Rights Clearing House, Common Sense Media and the California Consumer Federation.
Wide range of gadgets
If the bill is approved, all connected devices would be affected, including personal computers, tablets, smart phones and Internet TVs. This would seem to require technical updates to an array of existing gadgets, including millions of Apple Inc. iPhones already in circulation.
Internet browser makers Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation have already begun to build Do Not Track features into the latest versions of their products, suggesting companies could achieve compliance through software updates. When flipped on, these existing tools simply send a signal to websites when a user first arrives, saying they don't want their activity monitored.
Google, for its part, offers a downloadable extension that blocks the installation of many ad technologies for its Chrome browser.
The shortcoming of the browser-based Do Not Track tools, besides not appearing on all devices, is that ad companies don't have any obligation to abide by these stated preferences. A number of marketing companies have begun working with the browser makers on voluntary solutions, but they remain just that.
A growing number of legislators, regulators and consumer advocates argue that individuals should, at least, have the legal right to remove themselves from this tracking if they want to.
In March, the Obama administration asked Congress to pass a broader "privacy bill of rights," based on recommendations put forth by the Commerce Department late last year. Among other things, it proposed setting limits on what can be done with the personal data and requiring companies to be transparent about how such information is used.
Several federal privacy bills have been proposed, including a package introduced in February by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, that specifically includes a Do Not Track component. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are also reportedly drafting legislation that would give Web surfers greater say in how their information can be used.
The Federal Trade Commission is also weighing a plan that would require online companies to follow consumers' Do Not Track requests.
So with all this under way, why is a state law necessary?
John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said that it's still unclear whether any of the federal measures will go into effect and that, in any case, there's no reason for the Golden State to wait. It could apply pressure on federal legislators and regulators to catch up.
He noted that a law implementing the Do Not Call register, which many see as an analog to Do Not Track, passed in California before a federal law was enacted.
Google declined to comment for the story, and Microsoft didn't respond to an inquiry. A Yahoo spokesperson said in a statement that the Sunnyvale company is reviewing the proposal and looks "forward to addressing Sen. Lowenthal's concerns."
"There is a great deal of detail still to be explored with the variety of Do Not Track proposals being discussed," the statement continued, "and we are already working with each of the major Web browser vendors and legislators to discuss commonsense solutions that protect user privacy while maintaining the free Internet model."
E-mail James Temple at [email protected].