At a hearing, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W-Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, had some select words for online businesses: Informing consumers about data collection and allowing people to stop their data from being gathered is "a new cost of doing business in America."
"I don't think this is too much to ask of companies that are making a lot of money off of consumers' information," he said. "I want ordinary consumers to know what is being done with their personal information, and I want to give them the power to do something about it."
Rockefeller touted his proposed bill, the Do-Not-Track Online Act (S. 917), which would require ad networks and other companies to honor users' requests to opt out of online data gathering. "This bill is based on a simple concept," he said. "With an easy click of the mouse, consumers can tell all online companies that they do not want their information collected."
He also said he recently met with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) about his different privacy proposal, the Commercial Bill of Rights Act (S. 799). That measure, described by Rockefeller as "a less-targeted, more comprehensive piece of legislation," would require companies to follow fair information practices principles. Although the bill doesn't specifically mention a universal do-not-track mechanism, many observers say the bill would nonetheless require many online companies to allow consumers to opt out of data collection.
Not all lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing said they supported new privacy legislation. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) expressed concern that the proposed laws were a "solution in search of a problem," adding that restrictions on online advertising could result in less free content and apps.
Toomey said that Congress should consider "what, if any, real harm has come from online data collection" before proceeding with new laws.
Federal Trade Commission member Julie Brill told the panel that although parts of the industry have moved forward with a do-not-track mechanism -- referring to browser manufacturers' recent decision to roll out do-not-track headers -- she was uncertain whether the initiative would gain traction without legislation.
"I am worried that we may not be able to get all the way there because of how the industry is structured," Brill said, adding that advertisers and ad networks are "disparate" and might not act uniformly.
When asked by Rockefeller whether the FTC could take action against companies that don't honor do-not-track headers, Brill replied that it would depend on what promises the companies had made to users. If ad networks say they will respect do-not-track and then fail to do so, the FTC can accuse them of acting deceptively, she said.
But if ad networks never promise to follow the headers, the FTC's jurisdiction is more limited. The agency could still act, she said, but only if the networks had done something "unfair," which would depend on all of the facts and circumstances.