Internet companies came under fire on Capitol Hill on Thursday, with lawmakers questioning how well the companies protect information that they collect online about consumers for advertising purposes.
“I think it’s a big deal if someone tracks where you go and what you look at without your personal approval. We wouldn’t like that in the non-Internet world and I personally don’t like it in the Internet world,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas).
Lawmakers in the House are drafting Internet-privacy legislation designed to provide consumers more information about what is being collected online and to give them greater control about how that data can be used. It could also set rules for how consumers could prevent their personal data from being shared with advertisers.
“Consumers are entitled to some baseline protections in the online space,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D., Va.) chairman of the House Internet subcommittee.
The subcommittee is leading efforts in Congress to pass consumer privacy legislation, though there doesn’t appear to be enough momentum for passage this year, as lawmakers address energy and health-care legislation.
Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. both have voiced support for legislation that sets regulations for consumers’ Internet privacy, although they remain at odds with public interest groups about how that legislation should be written.
Consumer groups want the collection of data on consumers’ online habits to be barred unless they specifically agree to its collection. Internet companies generally prefer opt-out policies for most data they collect on users.
“Much attention has been paid recently to the question of whether an opt-out or an opt-in approach to user control in the area of interest-based advertising is best,” said Anne Toth, head of privacy for Yahoo! Inc., in written testimony at the hearing. “The answer is that it’s not one or the other — it’s both. Some services and models should require an opt-in approach, while, for other models, an opt-out is a more appropriate default.”
Ms. Toth, along with privacy officers from Google and Facebook Inc., detailed in written testimony their companies’ efforts to protect consumer privacy, although they acknowledged those self-regulatory efforts remain ongoing.
Facebook privacy officer Chris Kelly said the company may have been “inartful in communicating with our users and the general public about our advertising products” in the past. “Users should choose what information they share with advertisers,” he said.
In February, the Federal Trade Commission released a report on industry self-regulation efforts on behavioral advertising online. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz warned that the industry needed to do a better job to avoid “a more regulatory approach” by the agency.