“Do Not Track Me” gains traction in Washington

I’m just back from a sweltering week in Washington, DC, convinced that those of us who care about protecting consumers’ online privacy have reason for optimism.  There is growing interest in creating a “Do Not Track Me” list and mechanism to implement it.

Sure, it could be that the 95-degree-plus temperatures coupled with humidity nearly as high fried my brain, but I don’t think so.  My analysis is based on meetings with Congressional,  Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission staff members, as well as others who follow the issue closely.

Congress is clearly beginning to focus on online privacy. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, has been circulating a draft bill for discussion.  His colleague, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-IL, has introduced an online privacy bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, just held hearings on the subject. Those sessions seemed to draw more than token attention from members, perhaps because of the Wall Street Journal’s series “What They Know” that has revealed in great detail just how much of our activity on the Web is monitored by online companies like Google.

At that Senate hearing, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz mentioned the possibility of a “Do Not Track” function.

Why I’m encouraged after last week is that the idea — something that would be to analogous the tremendously popular and successful “Do Not Call” list run by the FTC — is more than just talk. There is action.

Indeed, one reason I was in Washington was to join representatives of organizations like USPIRG, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Action, to meet with  staff members for Sen. Mark Pryor, D-AR. They are gathering information because the senator is considering the possibility of introducing a “Do Not Track Me” bill this fall.

A knowledgeable FTC staff member confirmed that the staff is working on how Do Not Track could be implemented. And a meeting with a key FCC aide left me convinced that the commission is putting new emphasis on consumer privacy. Recall that at the Senate hearing Chairman Jules Genachowski testified that the FCC and the FTC have formed a joint task force to develop “effective and coordinated approaches to protecting online privacy.”

With the election rapidly approaching can meaningful comprehensive online privacy legislation be passed before the end of the year?  That’s probably unlikely.

But a significant step forward — simple “Do Not Track”  legislation — that would authorize the FTC to administer a list and implement the mechanism is completely doable.

“Do Not Call” is  tremendously popular.  People understand it.  It’s the same with “Do Not Track.”  Our recent national poll shows 80% support.  I think it has a good chance of winning bipartisan support.

It will take awhile to get comprehensive  privacy legislation through Congress, but based on what I saw and heard in Washington last week the time for “Do Not Track” has come and momentum is growing.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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