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On Privacy: Exceptions Swallow the Rule

From a statement made by Senate Commerce
Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)
before a hearing on online privacy:

Two months ago, we held a hearing
in this room on the need for Internet privacy
protections. We discussed how Americans
are tracked each time they visit a website,
watch a video or make a purchase. Both the
Obama administration and the Federal Trade
Commission testified that Americans have very
few rights to protect their information online.

I recognize that consumer information is
the currency of the Web. Thanks to advertising
revenue, much of the rich content of the
Internet is available to consumers for free. I also understand
that advertising is more effective and valuable to
companies when it is tailored to match consumers’ individual
interests and tastes. But there has to be some balance.
Consumers should have some degree of control over
their personal, often sensitive, online information.

Certain online companies have started taking steps to
provide consumers with tools to protect their personal information.
However, our witnesses also said that industry
has not gone far enough and that federal legislation
is needed. The story we heard this week about Orbitz targeting
more-expensive hotel rooms to Mac users
should remind all of us that companies will
always be tempted to misuse the consumer information
they collect.

In conjunction with the White House and FTC
reports, the Digital Advertising Alliance has announced
that its member online companies will
stop collecting personal information from those
consumers who tell them to stop doing so. However,
DAA also states that companies will still
collect information on these very same consumers
for “market research” and “product development.”
These exceptions are so broad, they
could swallow the rule.

Today, I want to hear from our witnesses what
consumers should expect when they tell online companies
that they do not want their information collected for any
purpose other than the functionality of the service. No one
wants to “break the Internet.” But what many of us want is
an Internet where consumers have some control over their
personal information.

I have learned that self-regulation is inherently one-sided,
and that the interests of consumers are often sacrificed
for the demands of the bottom line. Until consumers are
adequately protected, I will continue to push for legislation,
and hold hearings, to address this imbalance.