“Do Not Track Me” Bill Would Promote Online Privacy

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New bill would require the FTC to regulate companies’ use and collection of data about Internet users

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Internet companies and other businesses track which websites people visit and what they do on those sites. Then they sell these tracking data to advertisers who use the information to pitch products to specific individuals. Although online tracking can help consumers see online ads that more likely match their preferences, the practice also raises obvious privacy concerns.

The Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011 (H.R. 654), introduced last month by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), would require the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate companies’ collection and use of personal information about internet users.

The bill follows a December 2010 report issued by FTC staff that found companies increasing their collection and use of personal information, with individual privacy controls becoming less effective. The FTC proposed three regulatory strategies for protecting personal information. First, companies should train their employees on privacy concerns and take those concerns into account in product marketing decisions. Second, companies should provide consumers with the opportunity to opt out of any collection of their personal data. Third, companies should provide consumers with clearer privacy notices.

Major internet companies responded quickly to the FTC’s recommendations. Mozilla announced that it will add a feature to its Firefox browser giving users the opportunity to have Mozilla notify every website they visit that they do not want their internet behavior tracked. This feature will be effective only if users opt in and websites comply with those users’ requests. Google allows users to opt out of its own data collection, and, after the FTC issued its report, announced that it would allow users to make this choice permanent. Microsoft also recently announced that its new version of Internet Explorer will enable users to block tracking by websites they list.

The proposed Do Not Track Me Online Act would require the FTC to standardize opt-out mechanisms. The bill would exempt employers that collect personal information about their employees. It would also give the FTC authority to exempt use of this data for “certain commonly accepted commercial practices,” such as processing online purchases. The bill would give state attorneys general the right to sue for damages if a company violates FTC regulations, but would allow the FTC to intervene in those civil actions.

Representative Speier hopes to find a Republican co-sponsor for her bill.

The photograph of the Federal Trade Commission building is used unaltered under a Creative Commons license.