What's Moving Online Privacy? From Congress to the White House…

Marking a new front in the battle over online privacy, the Obama administration, for the first time, explicitly called on Congress today to approve a "consumer privacy bill of rights" that would regulate the collection of personal data on the Internet. The push from the White House will likely give a boost to the many privacy bills floating in Congress, but what's next, and what does it all mean for consumers, and constituents? We take a look at the road ahead

Marking a new front in the battle over online privacy, the Obama administration, for the first time, explicitly called on Congress to approve a “consumer privacy bill of rights” that would regulate the collection of personal data on the Internet. The push from the White House will likely give a boost to the many privacy bills floating in Congress, but what’s next, and what does it all mean for consumers, and constituents? We take a look at the road ahead.

The White House endorsement came from Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling at a hearing on online privacy held Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Strickling, the White House’s top communications policy advisor, said at the hearing that “the administration now recommends that Congress enact legislation,” after a lengthy study of privacy and after issuing a paper on the topic.

Strickling laid out three priorities for any legislation: it should establish a privacy bill of rights outlining basic levels of protections, it should ensure the Federal Trade Commission has the authority to enforce the expectations, and it should offer incentives to online companies who comply with the rules.

The focus in Congress and at the White House on online privacy reflects building concerns from consumers, privacy advocates and civil liberties groups that federal laws have not kept up with social networking sites like Facebook and companies like Google that are gathering more users and encouraging them to share more, and more private, information on themselves and their Internet activities.

Most notably, Strickling plainly identified the White House’s view that authority to enforce privacy protections should be given to the Federal Trade Commission, which previously endorsed a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would allow Web users to opt out of having their activities monitored.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing and, in good news for the advertising and Internet industries, said his agency would push for a Do-Not-Track system led by the private sector. He said privacy controls from Microsoft and Mozilla show this option is “viable.”

As we just reported, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 this week became the first major Web browser to include a do-not-track tool in its latest operating system. The move leaves Google and Apple as the only major providers of browsers that have yet to either endorse the do-not-track system or incorporate the tool in their products, as Mozilla Corp. released in February an early-model do-not-track feature in the latest version of its Firefox browser.

In the House, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has already introduced the “Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011,” in February that would require the Federal Trade Commission to develop standards for Web browsers.

Speier’s bill came on the heels of action by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) who reintroduced his own privacy bill from the previous Congressional session that would require advertising firms and Web companies to obtain users’ permission before sharing their personal information, but not include the specific ‘do not track’ feature recommended by the FTC.

Also floating in the House on online privacy is a promised bill from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) focused on social networks, and a proposal from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) aimed at protecting underage Internet users.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the debate is getting ugly, with a turf war brewing over which committee should control online privacy.

The Commerce Committee, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), took the lead today with the online privacy hearing as it fights back advances from the Judiciary Committee which created its own Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law in February, to be led by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

After sending a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this month questioning the committee’s motives behind the move, Sen. Rockefeller made a move again in the Commerce Committee hearing, promising to introduce legislation soon.

“Congress can no longer sit on the sidelines. There is an online privacy war going on, and without help, consumers will lose,” Rockefeller said.

Also coming up against the Commerce and Judiciary Committees is a promised bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

As proposed, that bill would create the nation’s first comprehensive privacy law, reinforced by an “online privacy bill of rights.”

Exactly when the bill will be introduced remains to be seen, it was predicted to be arrive ahead of the Commerce hearing, but it is garnering industry support.

Politico’s Morning Tech reports the bi-partisan bill will likely be endorsed by major Web companies like Microsoft, Intel and eBay, the same three companies that lined up behind Rep. Bobby Rush’s Best Practices Act last year.

While Congress’s actions garner support, today’s moves by federal officials got a more mixed reaction from consumer advocacy groups.

The Center for Digital Technology, for one, initially issued a statement in support of the White House endorsement.

“There is a window of opportunity here to pass strong consumer privacy legislation – with bipartisan support – in the 112th Congress,” Justin Brookman, a privacy project director at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a statement. “The administration’s support is a welcome addition to that debate.”

But the Center later joined with other groups like Consumer Watchdog, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Action, U.S. PIRG and the World Privacy Forum to denounce the FTC’s call to hand regulatory efforts over to private industry.

The groups said in a statement following the hearing that the “multi-stakeholder process” could “run the risk of being dominated by industry and failing to protect consumers if it is not organized in a fair and balanced manner.”

Calling for any “meaningful privacy legislation” to direct the FTC to enforce a do-not-track system, the groups also noted that “industry” has the resources to completely overwhelm consumers and should therefore “inform, not replace, rulemaking.”