Proposed Bill to Curb Online Tracking

Proposed Bill to Curb Online Tracking

A bipartisan bill to curtail unauthorized online tracking of individuals is in the works, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that could protect privacy but might disrupt advertising-based businesses.

The legislation, proposed by Senators John Kerry and John McCain, would require companies to get users’ permission to share data about them with third parties. It would also give people the right to see what information has been collected about them.

Public concern about personal information gathered by web sites has long simmered, but the issue has gained currency as smartphones become more and more like PCs — but often without even the nominal privacy controls offered by computer web browsers. Phones are tied tightly to individuals, and have unique identifying numbers that make it particularly simple to track a single user across different activities. They also reveal details about personal movements.

The issue came to a head three months ago, when it was revealed that a number of popular smartphone apps shared extensive personal information with multiple advertising networks, without users’ consent, and often without even providing a privacy policy.

Although the profiling and advertising industry is eager to prove it can self-regulate, history casts doubts on how much protection consumers can expect from the very companies eager to monetize their data. Amazon, for example, was recently sued for allegedly circumventing users’ Internet Explore privacy settings.

Washington’s response has been varied. The Federal Trade Commission recommended the creation of a “do not track” system along the lines of the “do not call” list designed to allow opting out of telemarketing, and a bill to implement it was introduced in January.

Meanwhile, legislation proposed by Florida House representative Cliff Stearns would reportedly do little to change current practices while encouraging businesses to voluntarily self-regulate in the future.

The Kerry-McCain bill is expected to be introduced before the Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing on online privacy next Wednesday.

Although nobody likes to feel their privacy has been invaded, consumers have also grown accustomed to free apps and content that’s supported by advertising — advertising that’s often targeted by using personal information. Providing a blanket opt-out for online tracking could impact ad revenues, forcing more apps and services to charge fees. Whether users prefer to be monitored or pay for privacy remains to be seen.

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