Privacy Groups Send E-Commerce Recommendations To Capitol

Tue, Sep 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    WASHINGTON, D.C. — Privacy advocates are gearing up to push for broad electronic privacy legislation this fall, hoping to convince lawmakers that businesses’ self-regulation techniques are inadequate.

    In letters sent Tuesday to key lawmakers negotiating a privacy bill, the groups said electronic information from consumers is now collected, compiled, and sold without reasonable safeguards.

    Internet companies like Google Inc. (GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), and AT&T Inc. (T) have staged their own push for industry standards on privacy.

    The Federal Trade Commission also is considering rules to better protect consumers.

    E-commerce and informational Web sites increasingly are funded by targeted advertisements that use consumer search terms or other identifying data to display ads that may interest that particular user.

    The privacy groups say many businesses are going beyond contextual advertising based on search terms and tracking Web surfers’ moves "click by click."

    The groups signing Tuesday’s letters have been key players in previous Capitol Hill privacy debates. They include the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    Representatives of the coalition will meet with lawmakers later this month to discuss their recommendations.

    Lawmakers in the House are discussing a privacy bill that would rely in part on businesses’ best practices, according to people familiar with the talks.

    At this point, lawmakers appear to be relying on most Web sites’ "opt-out" framework that gives consumers the option to turn off mechanisms that link their surfing activity to relevant ads, the sources say.

    Privacy advocates are angling for a more robust "opt-in" approach.

    The groups also say Internet companies’ efforts don’t go far enough. "Self regulation does not work. We’ve seen it in capital markets. We’ve seen it online," said Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson.

    The bill being discussed on Capitol Hill may not satisfy lawmakers like Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., or ranking member Joe Barton, R-Texas, both supporters of broad privacy legislation.

    Privacy groups believe the time is ripe for their input. Lawmakers have asked for their assistance and are open to discussions about a wide range of issues.

    "One of the things we’re concerned about is that behavioral advertising is just one piece of the puzzle," said World Privacy Forum Executive Director Pam Dixon. "We have to look at it as an entire ecosystem of digital activity."

    The coalition says Congress should ban online collection of all sensitive information as well as any data from people under 18, if their age can be inferred.

    The group also says the FTC should establish a "behavioral tracker" registry, and consumers should be able to obtain and tweak their personal data.

    The group sent those and other recommendations to Waxman, Barton, Technology Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va., and ranking member Cliff Stearns, R- Fla., and Consumer Protection Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and ranking member George Radnanovich, R-Calif.

    Contact the author at: 202-862-9263 or [email protected]

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