May 9, 2011, 1:51 PM

Federal lawmakers eye stronger online privacy protections

One bill before Congress focuses on online and mobile protections for minors.

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Online privacy is back on the congressional agenda this week.

U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat from West Virginia, said Friday he would introduce the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 this week, which would require online companies to honor consumers’ desires to not have information about their behavior tracked and shared. Also on Friday, Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, released a draft of the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, which aims to update and extend existing laws protecting children online.

Rockefeller says consumers should be able to decline online companies permission to track their behavior, and that companies must honor that choice. “Consumers have a right to know when and how their personal and sensitive information is being used online—and most importantly to say ‘no thanks’ when companies seek to gather that information without their approval,” he says. Rockefeller adds that if a consumer asks not to be tracked, an online company can only collect the information about the consumer that is necessary for the web site or service to function, but that the company then must destroy or make anonymous the information once it is no longer needed. Enforcement would fall to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011 aims to strengthen existing privacy protections for minors. Current protections provided under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998  need updating, sponsors Markey and Barton say. “Times have changed since Congress passed COPPA in 1998,” Barton says. “The Internet has transformed into an invaluable educational, research and entertainment tool, but with the good comes the bad.”

The draft legislation would require online companies, including retailers and ad networks, to obtain parental consent before collecting children’s personal information, including location information if kids access the web via mobile devices, and prohibit companies from using that information for targeted marketing purposes, such as behavioral advertising. The bill also would require online companies in possession of publicly available personal information to provide consumers a way to have it deleted.

The new bills join at least three other online privacy bills under consideration in Washington. The California State Legislature is also reviewing a bill, SB 761, that would give consumers more control over how their online behavior is tracked and shared with marketers and retailers. After a hearing on the bill, the California State Senate Judiciary Committee last week voted 3-2 to move the proposed law forward in the Senate. The bill must clear several more hurdles before it becomes law.

Meanwhile, online companies and trade groups are making their opposition to the California bill known. Ahead of the vote, more than 30 groups, including Google Inc.  and wireless industry trade association CTIA, sent a letter to the state’s judiciary committee outlining their objections to the bill. The letter says the bill is overly broad, would negatively affect consumers and is unnecessary.

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