Senate Committee Hacks Away at Online Privacy Thicket

The pressure on major Web site operators and online advertisers to do a better job of protecting consumers’ privacy continues to mount. On Tuesday, Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., said he plans to introduce legislation that would “give people more control over how their personal information is collected and distributed online.”

Kerry’s announcement coincided with a hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the issue of consumer online privacy. Kerry is chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. He expects to introduce his privacy protection bill in the next session of Congress.

No Details Offered

No details of the proposed legislation were revealed Tuesday, but Kerry expressed interest in helping people find ways of managing the perception that can result from having certain information publicized on the Internet.

“Our ability to control what information is collected, used, and disclosed about us is central to how we want the world to view us, and that, in turn, affects our ability to seek out opportunity in both social and economic spheres,” Kerry said.

In citing the need for new privacy rules, Kerry offered the example of a person who might join a cancer survivors group on a social networking site such as Facebook and then have employers use that information against them when applying for jobs.

There should be time limits or other measures in placing for removing such information, Kerry suggested.

Starting a New Debate

If Kerry introduces a bill covering this type of information, it would take the Internet privacy debate in a new direction. So far, most privacy advocates have focused on two areas: the collection of information for sale to advertisers; and the potential for personal information getting in the hands of identify thieves or other unscrupulous individuals.

“Senator Kerry’s proposal is a great ideal, but it would be nearly impossible to implement,” Alan Webber, a partner with the Altimeter Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “We could potentially pass legislation that makes discrimination based upon information on the Internet illegal, but would that actually stop it? I don’t think it would.”

Regardless of the direction the privacy debate takes, it’s doubtful that any legislation will be passed in the near future.

“You can expect to see a number of proposals in both the House and Senate, but I doubt that any will pass in the near future, for three reasons,” Webber surmised.

First, Congress is unlikely to act before this fall, when an FTC report that’s expected to define the scope of the privacy issue will be released. Second, there are two privacy bills already pending in the House, neither of which is expected to reach the floor in the current session. Finally, the potential for Republicans taking control of the House in fall elections would force a restart of all legislative efforts.

No Action Soon

“We won’t see legislation in the near future,” Webber concluded, “but there is a high likelihood that we will have some sort of consumer privacy law by 2015 that concentrates less on restricting the collection of consumer information online and instead forces companies and Web sites to be more open about how they collect and distribute information.”

The FTC report could include a suggestion that consumers be given a way to place a “do not track” request in their Internet browsers rather than have to make that choice on a site-by-site basis. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz mentioned that possibility in his own testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.

“I don’t know if that type of technology exists,” Webber said of the browser-level opt out option, “but I assume it could be created.”

However, such technology wouldn’t necessarily make it more difficult for Web sites to collect consumer data, Webber added.

“As a society, we’re becoming more open to sharing, and the resulting collection of data about us,” Webber pointed out. “You just have to watch what is happening with Twitter, Facebook and other social applications. People are willing to trade data about themselves for convenience, entertainment or other perceived benefits.”

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