The head of the Senate Commerce Committee on Monday introduced a new privacy bill that would require ad networks and other companies to honor consumers' requests to opt out of online tracking.
The Do-Not-Track Online Act, unveiled by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), directs the Federal Trade Commission to craft rules establishing standards for a universal do-not-track mechanism. The bill specifies that it should allow consumers to indicate they don't want data about their Web activity collected by online services providers. While the bill allows for case-by-case exceptions, it also says that those exceptions require consumers' explicit consent.
The bill appears to be aimed at ensuring that ad networks respect the new browser-based do-not-track headers that have appeared since last December, when the FTC called for Web companies to create a universal mechanism for consumers to opt out of all online tracking.
Since then Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple have announced new do-not-track headers; users can activate those headers to communicate that they don't wish to be tracked, but only a few ad networks have promised to honor them. No law currently appears to require companies to respect browser-based headers, although some observers have suggested that refusing to do so might be considered an unfair practice.
Industry standards currently call for ad networks to notify consumers about behavioral targeting and allow them to opt out of receiving targeted ads, but don't mandate that companies follow do-not-track headers.
Instead, the self-regulatory group Network Advertising Initiative -- and the umbrella organization Digital Advertising Alliance, which includes the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Association of National Advertisers, Direct Marketing Association and American Association of Advertising Agencies -- host opt-out pages where users can express a preference to avoid targeted ads. Around 70 ad networks currently participate.
Stuart Ingis, counsel to the Direct Marketing Association, says the industry-run program can effectively inform consumers about online ad practices and allow them to choose whether they want targeted ads. "The self-regulatory program we've developed is getting a lot of traction and it will work," he says.
Ingis adds that a new law regulating behavioral targeting, or serving ads to users based on the sites they have visited, could "send the wrong signal to the public -- which is that there's something inherently wrong with these practices."
A host of consumer groups including the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumers Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation threw their support behind Rockefeller's bill.
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the EFF, says the group believes the measure can help preserve civil liberties online. Tien says that most online activity is covered by the First Amendment and should not be subject to surveillance by either the government or private companies. "It is speech, it is reading, it is associating with others," Tien says. "All of that needs to be protected."
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, compared the bill favorably to the similarly-named do-not-call law. "Instead of eliminating nuisance phone calls, this bill eliminates a far more dangerous practice: tracking and profiling based on the collection of personal information without our knowledge or consent," he stated.
Unlike the do-not-call law, which allows people to avoid telemarketing calls, Rockefeller's proposal will not empower people to stop receiving online ads. Instead, the bill allows users to avoid receiving certain targeted ads, but those ads presumably will be replaced with untargeted ones.
The bill is the second online privacy act introduced this year in the Senate. The one measure, backed by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) also would empower the FTC to craft rules ensuring that ad networks obtained users' consent to online tracking. But that measure, unlike Rockefeller's, doesn't specifically authorize creation of a universal opt-out mechanism.
The House of Representatives is considering several online privacy bills that would apply to behavioral targeting, or sending ads to users based on the sites they previously visited. One of those, a proposal by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) specifically authorizes the FTC to create do-not-track regulations.