New Senate Privacy Group to Focus on Behavioral Ads, Facebook

Another legislative body will now have its fingers in the online privacy pie. Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, has been chosen to head up a new Senate privacy subcommittee. The newly-formed subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law was created by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

According to a statement on Franken’s Senate website, the subcommittee will deal with issues including online behavioral advertising and social networking site privacy. In addition, the subcommittee has oversight of commercial data privacy laws and policy enforcement, privacy protection technologies, and standards for collection, storage, and dissemination of personally identifiable commercial information.

In April 2010, Franken and three other U.S. Senators sent a letter to Facebook blasting its open graph program. The letter called for Facebook to adopt an opt-in policy for third-party data sharing. “We are concerned…that this feature will now allow certain third party partners to have access not only to a user’s publicly available profile information, but also to the user’s friend list and the publicly available information about those friends,” noted the missive.

Other members of the subcommittee will include Ranking Member Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, as well as Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will also serve on the subcommittee, which is set to hold an executive business meeting on February 17.

Schumer was among the four Senators who sent the letter to Facebook last year. He has also reached out to the Federal Trade Commission, urging it to examine the privacy disclosures of Facebook and its rivals and to provide guidelines for such disclosure.

“The boom of new technologies over the last several years has made it easier to keep in touch with family, organize a community and start a business,” stated Franken in the announcement. “It has also put an unprecedented amount of personal information into the hands of large companies that are unknown and unaccountable to the American public. As chairman of this new subcommittee, I will try to make sure that we can reap the rewards of new technology while also protecting Americans’ right to privacy.”

Just last week, Rep. Jackie Speier of California introduced her “Do Not Track Me Online Act of 2011,” which included similar language to a privacy bill from fellow House Democrat Bobby Rush of Illinois, which he re-introduced last week. As the FTC prepares to analyze comments regarding the potential impact of do-not-track, more bills are expected to be introduced. Rep. Cliff Stearns recently said he will revive the privacy bill draft he floated last year. Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey has announced his intention to propose a do-not-track legislation specifically to protect children’s privacy, and Senator John Kerry has indicated he will propose a bill relating to online privacy.

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