US Lawmakers Debate Internet Privacy Arguments

11 July 2008

WASHINGTON DC: A US Senate hearing on the need (or otherwise) for internet privacy legislation specific to  online behavioral advertising, has been told that self-regulation could be a better way forward.

The Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection director, Lydia Parnes, told the Senate Commerce Committee there is a case for "meaningful, enforceable" policing by the industry of the information gathered from web users.

The FTC proposed last year that one or more self-regulatory groups should define standards for disclosure of advertising practices, the consent users must give and the steps companies which collect personal data must take to protect it.

She added that the FTC would "continue to monitor closely the marketplace so that it can take appropriate action to protect consumers as the circumstances warrant".

And Republican senator Jim DeMint declared he was reluctant to go beyond self-regulation because new rules "are likely to inhibit this showcase of free enterprise".

He added: "It's very likely by the time the FTC acts that the industry will be far ahead of where you are."

However, the leading internet firms are pressing for a national privacy law that will enforce standards for a range of online and offline activities – one of few instances where business has sought federal intervention.

Said Google senior privacy counsel Jane Horvath: "Google supports the passage of a comprehensive privacy law that would establish a uniform framework for privacy and procedures to punish bad actors."

And she was backed by Microsoft counterpart Mike Hintze, who argued: "There is just this emerging patchwork of federal and state privacy laws. As we get into online advertising, that kind of baseline federal privacy standard would certainly help here."

While Leslie Harris, president of lobby group, the Center for Democracy and Technology argued that self-regulation is not enough and that web users had too little idea of how their personal information is being tracked and used.

The committee did not take up the challenge of a comprehensive privacy law but pledged more hearings and continued monitoring of developments.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff