US lawmakers call for online ad privacy rules

Some lawmakers suggest self-regulation should govern behavioral advertising

Several Republicans joined Democratic lawmakers Thursday in calling for new rules to protect Web users' privacy in behavioral advertising networks, although many members of a U.S. House of Representatives committee suggested the rules should come from the advertising industry, not Congress.

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Congress should first let the online advertising industry come up with rules to police the use of personal data collected as a way to deliver ads targeted at user interests, said Representative Joe Barton of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But Barton also suggested new rules are needed. In many cases, Web sites and services are putting cookies on his computer without his knowledge, he said.

"I think it's a big deal if somebody tracks where you go and what you look at without your personal approval," Barton said at a hearing of two Energy and Commerce subcommittees.

"We wouldn't like that in the non-Internet world, and I personally don't like it in the Internet world. The information about myself is mine, unless I choose to share it."

Legislation may be needed because there's no widespread agreement on what constitutes transparency, notice and consumer consent, said Representative Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat.

"I will be listening intently to the accounts of how up front companies have been about the transfer of personal information," Rush said.

Wednesday's hearing was interrupted by a long series of votes on the House floor, but in written testimony, representatives of Google, Yahoo and Facebook said their companies are working hard to protect user privacy and make their use of personal data transparent.

For some services, Yahoo users must opt in to have their personal data collected, in other services, they must opt out, said Anne Toth, Yahoo's vice president of policy and head of privacy.

Toth and Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel at Google, both suggested that self regulation is working for the online ad industry. Most advances in online privacy protection have come as a result of industry initiative and self regulation.

"Market forces drive companies like Yahoo to bring privacy innovations to our customers quickly," Toth said in her written statement.

"As one company leads, many others follow or leapfrog by innovating in other ways. Self regulation then raises the bar to bring the rest of industry along with commitments in the areas of notice, choice, security, and enforcement."

Google has welcomed feedback on its advertising products from users, privacy advocates and government experts, Wong said. While Google supports new legislation that would update existing privacy laws, Google and other online ad vendors are working on self regulation that can be effective, she said.

"We trust that this committee will welcome these industry efforts at stronger and broader self regulation as a positive initiative that will benefit consumers," Wong said in her statement.

"At the same time, in the interest of consumers, we hope that the committee will encourage industry to adhere to these standards and always be on the lookout for areas of improvement."

Privacy advocate Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called for privacy legislation governing the use of personal data for behavioral advertising, saying that few Internet users understand the amount of information that's being collected about them.

"Industry self regulation, it is clear, has failed to offer meaningful protections to consumer privacy," Chester said in his written testimony.

"So-called 'notice and choice,' which has been the foundation of the self-regulatory regime, has done nothing to stem the tide of increasing data collection and use -- all without the genuinely informed understanding and consent of users."

While some lawmakers seemed to back new regulations, Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, urged that Congress move deliberately. Online advertising supports free content, he noted.

"Overreaching privacy regulation could have a significant negative economic impact at a time when many businesses in our economic are struggling," he said. "Let's be very careful of these issues before we leap to legislative, regulatory proposals."

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