A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Friday would create a do-not-track tool giving Internet users the power to prohibit online advertising networks and social media sites from tracking their Web behavior and sharing their personal information with other businesses.
The Do Not Track Me Online Act, introduced by Representative Jackie Speier, would direct the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to create standards for a nationwide do-not-track mechanism that would allow Web users to opt out of online tracking and the sharing of consumer data among online businesses.
Websites and ad networks that did not honor the opt-out requests would be subject to unfair or deceptive business practice complaints at the FTC, or enforcement actions by state attorneys general.
Speier, a California Democrat, also introduced a bill Friday that would allow consumers to prohibit their banks and other financial institutions from sharing personal information with third parties.
"These two bills send a clear message -- privacy over profit," Speier said at a press conference.
The do-not-track legislation is needed because there are no limits in the U.S. on how Web-based companies can track consumers online and whom they share the data with, Speier said.
Several consumer groups voiced support for the two bills, saying a universal do-not-track mechanism is needed to protect privacy. The do-not-track bill "will allow consumers to make a basic choice that they think they already had -- whether or not companies can track their activities online," said Carmen Balber, Washington, D.C., director for Consumer Watchdog.
Most consumers believe that when they agree to online privacy policies, their privacy will be protected, but instead, the policies simply detail how the website will use and share their information, Balber said.
Some privacy groups have called for websites to get opt-in permission before collecting personal data.
The FTC, in a December report on online privacy, endorsed do-not-track tools, but suggested that browser makers could implement the feature on their own. Mozilla, Microsoft and Google all announced do-not-track features for their browsers shortly after the FTC report.
But Speier said the do-not-track mechanism needs to be universal and easy to use. "It needs to be uniform, it needs to be simple and it needs to be up front," she said.
The browser do-not-track mechanisms all have problems that need to be addressed, added Michelle de Mooy, senior associate for national priorities at Consumer Action. "This bill gives consumers the ability to make that choice and puts it into law," she said. "She's responding to a very public outcry that says, 'we want a choice.'"
Private efforts to implement do-not-track tools have been ineffective, Speier added. "Often times, the emperor has no clothes," she said. There must be something enforceable, she said.
Several lawmakers and Web-focused trade groups have criticized efforts to create do-not-track tools, saying the health of the online ad industry depends on its ability to deliver ads targeted at consumers' specific interests.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau, representing online advertisers, said in December that there were "significant problems" with the FTC's do-not-track proposal. While a national do-not-track tool "might resonate with the public," it would be difficult to implement with many types of data moving on the Web, the group said. "To create a do-not-track program would require re-engineering the Internet's architecture," the IAB said in December.
Additionally, consumers depend on websites to share data so they can get customized news services, use social-networking tools and receive customized advertising, the IAB said. "Do not track is a misnomer because you cannot turn off data sharing online and, if you could, consumers would encounter a severely diminished experience since they would lose out on the remarkable benefits provided by data sharing," the group said.
Representatives of the IAB and two other Web-focused trade groups weren't immediately available to comment on Speier's legislation.
Speier's bill would allow the FTC to exempt some commonly accepted commercial services, such as the collection of data for billing purposes, from the do-not-track mechanism. The bill would require websites and ad networks to disclose their collection and information sharing practices.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.