Privacy is about to heat up again in Congress. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, reintroduced his Do Not Track Online Act, which will give consumers the ability to prevent online companies from tracking them on the Web and using that information for profit.
First introduced in May 2011, the bill never made it out of Rockefeller's own committee even though the powerful chairman held plenty of hearings on privacy issues.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who co-sponsored the 2011 bill, remains co-sponsor, but this time Blumenthal sits on the Commerce Committee, giving Rockefeller some added support. It also might help that Rockefeller's bill no longer has to compete in committee with a privacy bill sponsored by former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The bill would create a universal legal obligation for all online companies to honor a consumer's choice to not have information collected about his or her Web activities. Companies would be allowed to collect information necessary for a website or online service to function, but they would be required to destroy or anonymize the data when it is no longer needed. The Federal Trade Commission would be given the authority to enforce the law.
"Online companies are collecting massive amounts of information, often without consumers' knowledge or consent...My bill gives consumers the opportunity to simply say 'no thank you' to anyone and everyone collecting their online information. Period," Rockefeller said in a statement.
Since Rockefeller first introduced the bill, the advertising industry has rolled out an ad choices self-regulatory program that gives consumers the choice to opt-out of targeted ads. The program, managed by the Digital Advertising Alliance, which includes the Association of National Advertisers, the 4A's and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, has participation from more than 90 percent of the interactive ad business. The program was even recognized by the FTC as a good example of public and private partnership.
"We think we've made extraordinary progress," said Dan Jaffe, evp at the ANA. "More than 5 million people have come to our opt-out site, but only 1 million opt-out. When people understand their choices, the vast majority are accepting targeted advertising. Getting nontargeted advertising is like getting spam."
Despite the progress the advertising industry has made to self-regulate, Rockefeller remains unconvinced that the program is working. As he told reporters following a hearing last year, "I don't trust these companies to do what's right when they're up against the bottom line."
Remaining steadfast in his belief that companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, Rockefeller saw no need to change the bill, a committee aide told Adweek. "Not much has really happened. The industry hasn't stepped up; they've failed," the aide said.
"We serve the ad choices icon a trillion times a month. It's pretty hard to say it's not working," countered Lou Mastria, executive director of the DAA.
Rockefeller also took a swipe at the industry for failing to "honor Do Not Track requests," a reference to the industry's recent decision to not recognize Microsoft's default DNT browser. Microsoft's actions pre-empted the rest of the online ad industry, which was working to introduce an opt-out Do Not Track browser solution by the end of last year.
The online "[i]ndustry stood at the White House and made a public pledge to honor Do Not Track requests but has since failed to live up to that commitment," Rockefeller said in his statement.
Though privacy legislation is a priority for Rockefeller, his time is limited. He said earlier this year he would not seek re-election in 2014.