Online Privacy Bill First Step to Comprehensive Reform?

Lora Bentley

A week ago, the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science and Transportation heard testimony on the need for an "online privacy bill of rights" that would provide consumers with basic privacy protections. The hearing came on the heels of proposed legislation sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would require companies to ask permission before sharing a customer's or user's information with third parties, as well as give customers the ability to see the information any one company has collected on them.


For the first time, the White House is also on the record in support of comprehensive online consumer privacy legislation. Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling spoke to the committee for the administration. He noted:

The large-scale collection, analysis, and storage of personal information is becoming more central to the Internet economy Yet these same practices also give rise to growing unease among consumers, who are unsure about how data about their activities and transactions are collected, used, and stored.

According to AFP, committee chair Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.) stressed that industry self-regulation in online privacy to this point has not worked. In fact, he called it "a failed experiment." He said:

There is an online privacy war going on, and without help, consumers will lose ... [I]t is time the law gave Americans a choice in the matter.

Online privacy legislation is much-needed progress, but at least one observer says it's not enough. Behavorial advertising and large collections of personal information are symptoms of a bigger problem, not the problem themselves, says Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of In a Huffington Post piece earlier this week, Fertik said the real problem is that there is a market for personal information at all. He wrote:

[C]ountless websites offer both wholesale and retail storefronts for your personal information ... Most consumers don't realize that their data has been sold until it is too late: when they are stalked, scammed, denied a job, or declined for health coverage. And consumers are powerless to correct this information when it's wrong.

That's why he says the "Online Privacy Bill of Rights" is just the beginning.

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