Sep 012009
 September 1, 2009  Posted by  Business, Featured News, Laws, Online, U.S.

Earlier today, a coalition of ten consumer and privacy advocacy organizations urged Congress to enact legislation to protect consumer privacy in response to threats from the growing practices of online behavioral tracking and targeting. The coalition consists of the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and The World Privacy Forum.

In a statement of principles [pdf], the coalition recommended that sensitive information not be collected or used at all for behavioral tracking or targeting, and that the FTC should define “sensitive information” to include data about health, finances, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, personal relationships and political activity. The recommendations also include protection of minors by prohibiting data collection or use from anyone under age 18 to the extent that age can be inferred.

The group also called on the FTC to establish a Behavioral Tracker Registry that would provide information as to what types of information are being collected by specific marketers and how the information is being used. It would also permit consumers to opt out of all tracking, similar to the Do-Not-Call list. A two-page overview of all of their recommendations is available here [pdf]

One of the most significant recommendations in the recommendations is that advertisers would be able to collect and use non-sensitive data for a period of 24 hours for targeted advertising purposes, but after 24 hours, they would have to obtain consent to continue using the information. When asked about this recommendation during a conference call with members of the media and government, Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum explained that data’s usefulness is actually short-lived and the 24 hours would give advertisers an opportunity to make money without being unduly imposing on consumers.

Despite claims that the internet will go dark if advertising is restricted, the coalition believes that its recommendations will allow for a robust commercial market while protecting consumer privacy. The groups noted that for the past four decades the foundation of U.S. privacy policies has been based on Fair Information Practices: collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification, use limitation, security safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability, and they are calling on Congress to apply those principles in legislation to protect consumer information and privacy.

So far the online industry has argued that self-regulation provides adequate consumer protection.  The coalition said formal regulation is necessary.

“The record is clear: industry self-regulation doesn’t work,” said Beth Givens, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse “It is time for Congress to step in and codify the principles into law.”

“We’ve seen in industry after industry what happens when the fox is left to guard the chicken coop — consumers lose,” said John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. “Regulations that can be enforced to hold the industry accountable are essential.”

Expressing great concern that behavioral data might be used to unfairly discriminate against people in any way that would affect an individual’s credit, education, employment, insurance, or access to government benefits (“redlining”), the coalition also called on Congress to prohibit the use of behavioral data for such purposes.

The coalition outlined its concerns and recommended principles for consumer information privacy legislation in letters sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, its Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection and Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has indicated that the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet will consider consumer privacy legislation this fall. Hearings were held this summer.

“The rise of behavioral tracking has made it possible for consumer information to be almost invisibly tracked, complied and potentially misused on or offline. It’s critical that government enact strong privacy regulations whose protections will remain with consumers as they interact on their home computer, cell phones, PDAs or even at the store down the street. Clear rules will help consumers understand how their information is used, obtained and tracked,” said Amina Fazlullah of U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “In the event of abuse of consumer information, this legislation could provide consumers a clear pathway for assistance from government agencies or redress in the courts.”

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