Senate Dems Push for Online Privacy Legislation

Ad industry's self-regulation debated

Senate Democrats aren't going to let a little distraction like the 2012 presidential election stop them from pushing for baseline legislation to protect consumers’ privacy online.

In a classic showdown between Democrats and the GOP during a Commerce Committee hearing on the need for privacy protections, Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) set a combative tone.

"Self-regulation is inherently one-sided. Consumers' rights always seem to lose out to the industry's needs," Rockefeller said in his opening remarks. "We should take up strong-consumer-focused privacy legislation this year."

The lone GOP member to show up, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said he is still skeptical about privacy legislation, and worries that it could lead to "fewer online services and more paywalls. It's premature to talk about legislative fixes when we don't know to what extent a problem exists," he said.

Today's privacy hearing, the fifth held by the Committee since last year, was called to discuss the recommendations made by the Federal Trade Commission and the Commerce Department in privacy reports released earlier this year. Both reports called for some sort of baseline privacy protections for consumers, especially the Commerce Department, which called for a consumer privacy bill of rights.

So far, the Digital Advertising Alliance has kept new privacy laws at bay, rolling out a self-regulatory program that allows Internet users to opt-out of behaviorally targeted ads and making the commitment to launch a "Do Not Track" browser feature by the end of the year.

Although both initiatives received strong support from the FTC, it didn't seem to be enough for the Dems, who claim that self-regulation doesn't cover all the bases.

"Despite their good intentions, sometimes self-regulation efforts do not end up protecting consumers. Corporations are unlikely to regulate themselves out of profits. Why would the DAA have a major chance of succeeding?" Rockefeller asked FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz, one of the three witnesses who testified at the hearing. (Rockefeller last year introduced a Do Not Track bill.)

"I think [the DAA] has made meaningful progress. We think by the end of the year, one way or the other, there is going to be meaningful Do Not Track so consumers can opt out of third party advertisements," Leibowitz said.

The administration, represented by Cameron Kerry, general counsel for the Department of Commerce, does't want to leave consumer privacy to self-regulation. "Too much hangs on existing privacy policies. People don't have a choice about the contents in privacy policies. And there are companies out there that don't have privacy policies. The existing authority doesn't reach those," Kerry said.