September 8, 2009, 12:00 AM

Consumer advocacy groups call for Internet privacy protections

A group of 10 consumer advocacy groups has called on the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to protect consumer privacy amid the growing use of Internet technology that tracks consumers’ online behavior. A bill is expected this fall.

A group of 10 consumer advocacy groups, including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, has called on the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to protect consumer privacy amid the growing use of Internet technology that tracks consumers’ online behavior. A bill is expected to be submitted this fall in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

The subcommittee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D, VA), held a series of public hearings this summer on consumer privacy. House members are expected to soon introduce legislation that would place some restrictions on the ability of online marketers to track consumer Internet behavior across multiple web sites, says John Simpson, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, one of the consumer groups meeting with the subcommittee this week.

In a statement earlier this summer, Boucher made the following comments when referring to plans to introduce privacy legislation this year:

  • Consumers should be given clear, concise information in an easy-to-find privacy policy about what information a web site collects about them, how it is used, how it is stored, how long it is stored, what happens to it when it is no longer stored, and whether it is given or sold to third parties.
  • Consumers should be able to prevent their information from being used, including by the company collecting it, its subsidiaries and business partners.
  • Consumers should be able to opt in to the use of the information by third parties for those parties` own marketing purposes.
Simpson adds that one issue that privacy advocates hope the legislation will address is the length of time for which online marketers will delete software cookies that record a consumer’s online behavior. When advertisers in the past have let consumers opt out of tracking systems, some of them only deleted the tracking cookies for about six months, requiring the consumers to go back and opt out again to prevent their online activity from being tracked, he says.

The Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group representing marketing companies including Google Inc. and BurstMedia, recently established a policy, effective Aug. 1, 2009, that calls on all member companies to delete cookies for at least five years when consumers make opt-out requests.

The consumer advocacy groups, however, are pushing Boucher’s committee to put that and other measures into federal legislation.

“Consumers increasingly rely on the Internet and other digital services for a wide range of transactions and services, many of which involve their most sensitive affairs, including health, financial and other personal matters,” the groups said recently in a joint statement to Boucher’s committee. “Companies are now engaging in behavioral advertising, which involves the surreptitious monitoring of user activity, just one example of new ways that data is being collected and used. In order to protect the interests of Americans, while maintaining robust online commerce, we recommend that Congress enact clear legislation to protect consumer privacy that implements fair information practices.”

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