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Privacy Groups Hoping Study Prompts Action

By , NATIONAL JOURNAL

Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 3:39 pm

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Many websites reveal even more personal information about consumers — such as their user names and e-mail addresses — than they previously admitted to, according to a study released on Tuesday. Privacy advocates quickly said the report supports their complaints and that they plan to use it to pressure Congress to pass do-not-track legislation.

The study conducted by Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student with the Stanford University Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, examined the information that 185 top U.S. websites send to third parties. Mayer found that most of the websites are leaking — many inadvertently — e-mail addresses, user names, and other information to third parties such as ad networks, despite privacy policies that claim they do not share personally identifiable information with third parties.

Privacy advocates said that the study confirms their contention that the information that many websites collect from consumers is not as anonymous as the sites claim and can be married with other data to identify individuals.

The groups have urged Congress to pass legislation codifying privacy protections into law and allowing consumers to opt out of being tracked on the Web.

“This study proves that personally identifiable information is regularly shared without consumers’ knowledge,” Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson told a forum on Tuesday. “We can’t rely on industry promises to protect consumer privacy; clearly, we need do-not-track legislation, and we need it now.”

Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Digital Democracy, and other privacy groups will get a chance to make their case during a private White House meeting on Tuesday afternoon with members of the Obama administration’s privacy task force. The task force is finishing a final report to be released by the Commerce Department, possibly by the end of the month, outlining the administration’s position on online privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission is also working to finish its own report with recommendations on ways to enhance consumer privacy online. That report is expected to be released in the coming months, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said at the privacy event. In a preliminary report, the FTC endorsed a do-not-track system that would give consumers the choice of whether they want to be tracked as they surf the Web.

Internet browser makers including Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla have adopted their own do-not-track options, Leibowitz noted, adding that he is hoping that Google will adopt such an approach for its Chrome browser.

“At the FTC, we’re agnostic on how do-not-track comes about,” as long as it is easy to use and find, Leibowitz said, noting the agency has not endorsed legislation mandating such a system.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has introduced legislation that would require websites to respect consumer choices about online tracking, although the committee’s senior counsel, Christian Fjeld, said it was doubtful that the measure would pass.

“I wouldn’t be counting on us passing privacy legislation in this difficult political environment,” Fjeld said. “Having said that, my boss, Senator Rockefeller, is still committed to working in a bipartisan manner to see how far we can move forward. And if it’s not actually passing legislation, than it certainly [will] still entail conducting oversight and having public hearings on this subject.”

Senior Analyst Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation dismissed Mayer’s study as alarmist.  “Internet users have more tools to protect their online privacy today than they had a decade ago, and the private sector is working diligently to strengthen and improve online advertising self-regulation,” Castro said in a statement.

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