Privacy groups support new do-not-track bill

The new legislation would apply to smartphone networks as well as websites and online ad networks

Several privacy and civil rights groups voiced support for an online do-not-track bill introduced in the U.S. Senate Monday, saying the legislation would give Web users control over their personal data.

Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller's bill would create a national do-not-track mechanism, a "crucial civil liberties protection for the 21st century," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU is concerned that data from online tracking, typically used to deliver ads targeted at a Web user's interests, is being married with offline databases and shared with law enforcement and other government agencies, Calabrese said during a press conference. Web users should have a "practical anonymity" to comment, read provocative material, and associate with groups outside of the mainstream, he said.

"The current economic model creates an incentive for tracking," Calabrese added. "If consumers don't have the ability to opt out, the result is going to be a detailed portrait of our online activities, and that portrait will be outside our control."

Rockefeller's bill, called the Do-Not-Track Online Act, would require online companies to honor consumer requests to opt out of tracking. The bill would allow the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to take enforcement action against companies that fail to honor the do-not-track requests.

After an Internet user opts out of online tracking, Web-based companies could collect only the information needed for the website or online service to function. The legislation would require online companies to destroy or anonymize personal information after it's no longer needed.

"Recent reports of privacy invasions have made it imperative that we do more to put consumers in the driver's seat when it comes to their personal information," Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement. "I believe consumers have a right to decide whether their information can be collected and used online."

The bill would apply to mobile phone network operators as well websites and online advertising networks. The mobile phone provisions are important after recent reports that Apple and Google are tracking users of their smartphone operating systems, said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

Rockefeller has "made it very clear that do-not-track online is an idea whose time has come," Court said. "This is going to cover iPhone users, Android users, who shouldn't have to worry about being spied on by their smartphones."

NetChoice, an e-commerce trade group, has raised concerns about do-not-track efforts in Congress. Targeted advertising helps pay for free applications and content on the Web, and a government-enforced do-not-track mechanism could cause major damage to the online advertising industry, said Steve DelBianco, NetChoice's executive director.

But privacy and civil liberties groups said the do-not-track legislation is needed because there are few limits on the amount and type of personal information Web-based companies can collect.

The legislation would give "Americans the right -- and the right tools -- to browse the Internet without their every click being tracked for marketing or other purposes," said Susan Grant, director of consumer projection at the Consumer Federation of America. "Right now, the privacy interests of individuals who go online and the interests of advertisers and others who want their personal information are woefully out of balance."

Other groups expressing support for Rockefeller's legislation included the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumer Action, and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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