A privacy bill introduced in Congress on Friday raised the possibility that Internet users will be able to prevent advertisers from tracking what they do online.
Similar to the 2003 Do Not Call Registry that prevents telemarketers from calling consumers who don't want to be contacted, the "Do Not Track" bill would allow the Federal Trade Commission to force online advertisers to respect the wishes of users who do not want to be tracked for marketing purposes.
"Failure to do so would be considered an unfair or deceptive act punishable by law," said a statement from the office of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who is sponsoring the bill.
Speier also introduced a second House bill that would enable consumers to better control financial information collected about them by banks and other institutions. That bill includes a provision that would prevent companies from sharing consumer financial information without explicit pre-approval from the consumer, a process known as opting in.
"These two bills send a clear message — privacy over profit," Speier said in a statement. "Consumers have a right to determine what if any of their information is shared with big corporations, and the federal government must have the authority and tools to enforce reasonable protections."
On Thursday, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) reintroduced his own privacy bill from the previous congressional session. Rush's legislation would attempt to build federal standards around the ways personal data can be collected and used. Rep. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is also expected to present his own privacy legislation soon.
The "Do Not Track" bill would give the FTC 18 months to come up with a set of regulations that would require advertisers to allow users to "effectively and easily" choose not to have their online behavior tracked or recorded.
"It really is a strong pro-consumer bill," said Ryan Calo, director of the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford Law School, who noted that the bill's teeth included provisions that would allow state prosecutors to go after privacy violators if the FTC didn't have time or resources.
Still, Calo noted that the bill was not a panacea for preserving online privacy.
For one thing, he said, it would apply only to consumers who elect not to be tracked — a process called opting out. Anyone who did not opt out, for instance because they did not know how or know that they could, would not be protected.
Online marketers also criticized the bill as overreaching, as it would give the FTC broad authority to determine which practices to regulate as tracking, and which were necessary technical practices that the Internet requires to function.
"This bill ignores the fundamental operations of the Internet," said Mike Zaneis, senior vice president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a group representing the online advertising industry. Collecting a user's browser type and the time he or she is visiting are, he said, "data points that are collected trillions of times each day in order to make the Internet operate and do not present legitimate privacy concerns."
In recent weeks, several browser makers have said they would add mechanisms that make it more difficult for advertisers to track user behavior.
Google Inc.'s Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Microsoft Corp.'s newer Internet Explorer 9 will have some protections built in, but critics say those features are not always easy for the average user to operate, nor do they block every type of tracking.
In December, the FTC released a report urging stronger online privacy controls, including a do-not-track mechanism. The Commerce Department also recommended stronger controls but stopped short of recommending legislation.