Lawmakers, Inching Toward A Privacy Bill, Question 'Data-Mining Reapers'

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Lawmakers Thursday questioned whether businesses are amassing too much data about consumers without their knowledge or consent.

"We have moved from an era of privacy keepers to privacy peepers and data mining reapers," Rep. Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) said at a hearing about data collection.“

Markey, who has previously said that consumers should be able to opt out of online behavioral targeting, reiterated calls for consumers to have the ability prevent companies from collecting data. "They should have the right to say no," he said.

The hearing, held by the Subcommittees on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection and Communications, Technology, and the Internet, addressed both online and offline data collection. Witnesses included WPP's George Pappachen, privacy advocates Chris Hoofnagle of Berkeley and Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum, as well as representatives from Wal-Mart, Acxiom and LearningResources.com.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who is expected to soon introduce a privacy bill, questioned whether legal protections could make people more favorably disposed toward ad targeting. Referencing a recent study showing that two-thirds of Americans rejected tailored ads, Boucher asked Hoofnagle whether that percentage would change if people had more control over the collection and use of their data.

But Hoofnagle said that new laws might not change people's attitudes because many consumers currently operate under the mistaken impression that sites with privacy policies aren't allowed to share data.

Much recent debate has centered on whether Web companies should obtain consumers' explicit consent to collecting data, or should merely allow them to opt out.

But Hoofnagle argued that neither opt-in or opt-out would protect consumers. "It is easy to trick people into opting in," he said. "It is easy to manipulate people into not opting out."

Instead, he urged Congress to limit the length of time data can be retained.

Rep. Mike Doyle questioned whether data collection hurts individuals. He proposed a scenario where a person who likes to ski is wrongly targeted as a fisherman and, as a result, receives ads related to fishing. "What's the harm?" he asked.

Dixon replied that some companies can use information for purposes that can have an impact on consumers. For instance, she said, some companies put people who dispute charges into "bad customer" databases.

Lawmakers also discussed balancing the advantages of data collection with empowering consumers to control the information that companies amass. "The collection, use, and dissemination of consumer information provide many benefits to consumers, businesses, and the marketplace," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in a written statement. "But they raise legitimate concerns about whether consumers have adequate control over personal information that is shared."

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2 comments about "Lawmakers, Inching Toward A Privacy Bill, Question 'Data-Mining Reapers'".
  1. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp. , November 20, 2009 at 11:49 a.m.

    I think that most people are apprehensive to data mining because they don't completely understand the logistics and service model. People always have the option of just not paying attention to the ad being served to them. Looking at it with a telescope, you can nit pick about data mining and best practice for data collection, but in the overall broad sense of the picture, there will always be a mechanism embedded into the system that allows consumers to just opt out. If save nothing else, they can just turn the box off. The real question is the right to privacy. I see the debate mute as a regular average Joe American. If the patriot act can infringe on ALL of my privacy rights to prevent "terrorism" why should I object to advertisers infringing on a FRACTION of my privacy rights to give me more entertaining ads? (Oh and by the way, PII is not stored for more than 18 months by law. Marketing Intelligence agencies are required to at least HOLD the information for 18 months. And by that time, the information is stale anyways and will most likely get dumped.)

  2. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp. , November 20, 2009 at 11:50 a.m.

    You can hate that everything is transparent, but if you don't want advertisers to know who you are, just don't put anything online about you. If you engage in the system, you have to buy into it. If I buy something online, I gotta give them my personal information. If I buy it from the store, I don't have to tell the cashier my email address. I can pay cash.