A senior Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives will soon introduce legislation designed to give Web users more control of their personal data and to give the U.S. Federal Trade Commission power to enforce voluntary privacy standards developed with Internet companies, he said Friday.
Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican and senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he plans to introduce online privacy legislation soon. The bill's focus will be on allowing Web users to know what personal information Internet companies are collecting about them and to control how it's used, said Stearns, co-author of past online privacy bills.
The bill would encourage Web-based companies to develop industry standards for privacy but would give the FTC some enforcement power, Stearns said during a speech at a Technology Policy Institute (TPI) forum on privacy.
Finding the right balance between privacy and online commerce is a "tough issue," but consumers are demanding more privacy protections. "We are at a tipping point where we have to come to grips with the information that's being collected," he said.
Still, Stearns suggested that online advertising could be hurt if regulations go too far. Online tracking to deliver behavioral, or targeted, ads is a legitimate practice if companies notify consumers what information is collected and allow them to turn off the collection, he said.
"Online advertising ... supports much of the commercial content, applications and services that are available today," he said. "We do not want to disrupt a well-established and successful business model."
Stearns' approach to online privacy would likely be different from a bill introduced in February by Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat. Speier's bill would direct the FTC 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.
The FTC, in a report released in December, called for the technology industry to create more do-not-track tools. Mozilla, Microsoft and Google all announced do-not-track features for their browsers shortly after the FTC report.
The U.S. Department of Commerce called for a privacy bill of rights for Web users in its own December privacy paper.
But William Kovacic, a Republican commissioner at the FTC, questioned what agencies would enforce new privacy standards and whether lawmakers and privacy advocates would stop pushing for more privacy protections if Internet companies met current demands. "Do you believe the promises of the regulators and others that if you do X, they will be satisfied?" he said at the TPI event. "Or is X a revise-and-resubmit process ... in which you never ultimately satisfy the referees?"
The FTC and Commerce reports, as well as some legislative proposals on online privacy, are "very fuzzy" on details on whether there should be strong regulations or voluntary compliance with industry privacy standards, he added.
Before new privacy regulations are created, lawmakers should look at the potential impact on Internet commerce, added Thomas Lenard, president at TPI, an antiregulation think tank. "More privacy generally means less information available" on the Internet, he said.
But Daniel Weitzner, associate administrator at the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), disagreed, saying recent studies suggest that Internet-based companies that give users more control over their personal data can build loyalty and advertising click-through rates at the same time. Giving consumers greater control over their privacy doesn't necessarily mean that online companies will lose access to all that data, he said.
"We really see no evidence that there's some trade-off" between privacy and e-commerce, Weitzner said.
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.