House Panel Debates Online Tracking

New privacy laws are needed in order to protect people from online tracking, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said Thursday.

“Every week we hear some additional outrage about the abuse of the Internet,” Barton said. “Enough is enough,” Barton, co-chair of a
congressional privacy caucus, said at a House Commerce Subcommittee hearing about online privacy.

Barton specifically criticized the use of “supercookies” -- which store
tracking information in a way that's hard for users to delete -- as well as
Amazon's plans for its new Silk browser, which would allow the company to
track Web activity of people who use the new Fire tablet without changing
the default settings. In a surprising rhetorical flourish, the Republican
lawmaker read aloud the Third Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says
that the government can't station soldiers in people's homes without their
consent. He said that the founding fathers wouldn't have included that
amendment in the Constitution if they didn't implicitly understand that
people have the right to privacy.

Barton wasn't alone in criticizing Web companies. Rep. G.K. Butterfield
(D-N.C.) said that companies weren't respecting the wishes of people who
want to avoid online tracking. “I strongly believe that consumers have the
right to know, up front, when their online activities are being tracked,
what activities are being tracked, and what that information will be used
for,” he said.

Butterfield added that consumers should have the right to opt out of data
collection. Industry self-regulatory standards require companies involved in
behavioral targeting to notify consumers about the technique via an icon and
to allow them to opt out of receiving targeted ads. But the self-regulatory
standards allow companies to continue collecting data even when consumers
opt out.

“A national baseline privacy law is the best way to insure consumers have
basic common sense and permanent rights over the collection and use of their
information,” Butterfield said.

But not all lawmakers appeared eager for new laws.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that consumer data is “the lifeblood
of a thriving Internet economy.” She added: "Should we allow our free market
to explore this natural resource and learn to commercialize it, protect it,
and respect it? Or are we going to restrict it altogether?”

Linda Woolley, executive vice president of the Direct Marketing Association,
testified to the panel about the industry's new self-regulatory program.
That initiative requires companies involved in behavioral targeting to
notify users via an icon and allow them to opt out of receiving targeted
ads. Woolley also referenced a study released two years ago by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which said that the ad-supported Internet accounts for around $300 billion a year in employee wages.

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