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'Do not track' bill to protect online privacy worries some lawmakers

December 2, 2010 |  1:59 pm

Weitzner and Vladeck "Do not track" legislation, designed to protect online consumers from companies tracing their digital footprints on the Web, is worrying some lawmakers, who on Thursday  warned that such a move could damage the Internet economy.

"What will happen to advertising-supported Internet content?" said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who could chair a key subcommittee dealing with online privacy when Republicans take control of the House in January. "We need to be mindful not to enact legislation that would hurt a recovering economy."

He and other lawmakers made their comments during a House hearing examining if Congress should enact legislation requiring a do-not-track function in Web browsers to allow consumers to opt out of the extensive data collection by Internet companies.

Momentum has been growing for such an option, which would build off the success of the do-not-call registry that lets consumers block unwanted calls from telemarketers. On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission endorsed the idea of a do-not-track function, although at this point it is calling for the industry to adopt it voluntarily.

The Obama administration endorsed the idea of voluntary industry compliance with stronger consumer privacy protections, but has not backed the call for a broad do-not-track function, said Daniel J. Weitzner, associate administrator for the Office of Policy Analysis and Development at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), chairman of the House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection, plans to introduce online privacy legislation next year and is considering including a do-not-track requirement. He indicated Thursday he was still undecided, but noted there were benefits to such a tool.

“Through such a mechanism, consumers could advise would-be trackers unambiguously and persistently that they do not wish to be followed by digital snoopers and spies across websites and their various fixed and mobile computing devices," Rush said.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said he planned to introduce comprehensive legislation protecting children's online privacy next year, and would include a do-not-track requirement for their Web surfing.

"Children should be playing ‘hide and seek,’ not ‘hide from the creep,’" Markey said.

Internet companies are trying to blunt the call for a do-not-track function by launching an industry-wide initiative offering more narrow privacy protection -- allowing people to opt out of receiving targeted ads based on tracking data.

"We believe it would be premature to require do-not-track through legislation or regulation given the still conceptual-nature of such a requirement," Joan Gillman, president of Media Sales for Time Warner Cable, told the subcommittee. She noted that advertisements are a key reason why most Internet content is free.

Weitzner and David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said people could be given greater privacy protections without a reducing advertising revenue for Internet companies.

But Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), said lawmakers should be careful to strike the right balance between increased privacy protections and the financial health of Internet businesses.

"Our first step should not be finding ways the government can regulate the Internet," he said.

RELATED:

Internet Explorer 9 to let users list sites they don't want tracking them

Regulators call for Do Not Track option for consumers in online privacy report

-- Jim Puzzanghera

 Photo: Daniel Weitzner of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and David Vladeck of the Federal Trade Commission testify at Thursday's congressional hearing. Credit: Bloomberg.

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