Blog: Congress Puts Web Data Collection Under Microscope

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Congress taking strong interest in targeted online advertising and the implications for personal privacy.  The House Energy and Commerce Committee has asked the major Internet companies about their data collection practices. Congress wants to know how Internet companies such as AOL, Comcast, Google, Microsoft, and others collect user information to target ads to Web surfers.

In an open letter House Energy and Commerce Committee members explain:

"In order for us to better understand how companies may be engaged in efforts to target Internet advertising, the impact of such efforts on consumers, and broader public policy implications, we respectfully request that you provide specific answers."

Thirty-three companies in total were sent the letter by House Energy and Commerce Committee. Companies were also asked to explain why they choose to target certain communities of Web users, the number of consumers who they tracked, whether consumers had been notified of tracking, and whether old data collected is at some time destroyed.

Facebook Missing From Congressional Scrutiny

Noticeably absent from the list of 33 Internet companies is social network Facebook. Most of the companies listed above routinely defend their privacy policies and say that all data collected is anonymous.  Facebook, however, is another story with its controversial Beacon system where a user's online purchase history is collected by Facebook and broadcast on that user's newsfeed.  Facebook's use of its Beacons has been criticized in the past. Just a few weeks ago we reported that Facebook was still tracking FB members online even if they weren't logged into the social network and had opted out of the Beacon program.  Facebook claims it deletes the information if it is not published in a users' newsfeed, but the fact that Facebook follows you around while you browse other websites is deeply concerning to me. Of course, Facebook users, including myself, willingly hand over all kinds of personal information that Facebook then collects. Facebook says this data collection helps "provide [users] with more useful information and a more personalized experience." 

It seems to me that while Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others are a good starting point. However without including social networks such as Facebook which are also tracking its users, Congress' privacy investigation won't be able to yield any serious results on behalf of the consumer. 

To read Congress' letter of inquiry, click here (PDF).

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