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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Senator Seeks More Data Rights for Online Consumers

Before his planned retirement from Congress at the end of next year, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat, intends to give American consumers more meaningful control over personal data collected about them online.

To that end, Mr. Rockefeller on Thursday introduced a bill called the “Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2013.”

The bill would require the Federal Trade Commission to establish standardized mechanisms for people to use their Internet browsers to tell Web sites, advertising networks, data brokers and other online entities whether or not they were willing to submit to data-mining.

The bill would also require the F.T.C. to develop rules to prohibit online services from amassing personal details about users who had opted out of such tracking.

Mr. Rocefeller proposed the same bill two years ago. But he did not push it in the Senate at the time because industry groups had pledged to voluntarily develop systems to honor the browser-based don’t-track-me flags. Last year, however, negotiations between industry groups and consumer advocates over how to execute these mechanisms essentially broke down and have since made little progress.

The new Rockefeller bill indicates that the senator believes the industry has not acted in good faith.

“The privacy of Americans is increasingly under assault as more and more of their daily lives are conducted online,” Mr. Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote on Thursday in an e-mail sent to a reporter. “Industry made a! public pledge to develop do-not-track standards that will truly protect consumer privacy â€" and it has failed to live up to that commitment. They have dragged their feet long enough.”

Industry representatives said that legislation was unnecessary because advertising networks and data brokers several years ago voluntarily introduced their own opt-out program for consumers, called Your AdChoices. Unlike the Do Not Track signals which would allow users to make a one-time decision about all online tracking from their own browsers, the industry program requires people to go to a site and individually select the companies, among several hundred, from whom they prefer not to receive marketing offers based on data-mining.

Stuart Ingis, a lawyer for the Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry consortium, said the program, which involves consumers installing individual cookies on their browsers, demonstraes that users already have choices about data collection.

“It’s a lot easier to use a system that is already built and works,” Mr. Ingis said.

Over the last few years, the number of companies that collect information about the reading habits, health concerns, financial capacity, search queries, purchasing patterns and other activities of online consumers has skyrocketed. Industry representatives argue that this benefits people because it enables companies to show them relevant ads, and that the ads themselves finance online sites and services that are free to consumers. Moreover, they say, the data collection is “anonymous” because online services typically use numerical customer codes, not real names or e-mail addresses, to track the behavior of individuals.

But consumer advocates warn that such profiling systems, which can collect thousands of details on nearly every adult in the United States, can be used to segment some people for preferential offers while relegating o! thers to ! inferior treatment. Despite industry claims that online tracking is anonymous, a few computer scientists have reported that sites often leak information that can identify individuals, including names, addresses and other details, to third parties.

“Nowadays, there is an incredible proliferation of tracking,” said Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco. “Data brokers, companies that you never heard of, are collecting massive dossiers about you as you browse around the Web and, right now, there are no limitations on the collection or use of those dossiers.”

To give people greater control over their own surveillance online, the Federal Trade Commission in a report on consumer privacy last March urged industry groups to adopt Do Not Track mechanisms by the end of 2012. In fact, the major browsers â" Firefox from Mozilla, Google’s Chrome, and the more recent iterations of Internet Explorer â€" already offer the don’t-track-me buttons. When these options are turned on, they send out signals to sites, and third parties like ad networks operating on those sites, that certain users do not want to have their information collected.

But industry groups and consumer advocates have been at odds for more than a year over how “Do Not Track” mechanisms should be presented to users and how online services should respond to the signals. In the absence of legislation or industry consensus, companies are free to ignore those user preferences.

Some browsers have responded to this standstill by taking matters into their own hands and blocking third-party tracking cookies, as m! y colleague Somini Sengupta reported this week.

But Mr. Rockefeller’s bill indicates that legislative action could pre-empt voluntary industry measures.

“This is a signal that Senator Rockefeller is serious about getting Do Not Track done,” said David C. Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown Law. Until last month, Mr. Vladeck served as the director of bureau of consumer protection at the F.T.C. “I think industry writ large - browser companies, advertising networks, data brokers - are going to understand that he is serious about getting across the finish line.”