Online Privacy Watchdogs Hammer Away on Capitol Hill

As Congress makes headlines on healthcare and financial industry oversight reform, online data privacy watchdogs are hammering away behind the scenes on the Hill. A joint hearing on online and offline data collection scheduled for later this week, and a planned series of Federal Trade Commission data privacy events have advocacy groups from as far away as California visiting Washington to make sure their voices are heard.

“What we’re concerned about is the amount of surveillance and tracking going on without consumer consent,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. Though often skeptical of government regulation, EFF recently joined lobbying groups including Center for Digital Democracy in recommending that Congress pass clear consumer privacy legislation.

Yesterday, Tien presented information at a briefing on Capitol Hill held to educate congressional staffers about how personal data is collected online. “[EFF has] always been very concerned about government regulation of the Internet, but we’ve also always been very concerned about individual rights,” he explained, counting personal privacy as an individual right. Educating Congress is “a little bit outside of our normal bailiwick,” he added.

“This is the first in a series of public education efforts our community plans to do,” said Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester, a more familiar face in DC. The briefing also featured representatives of U.S. Public Interest Research Group and World Privacy Forum.

The American Civil Liberties Union also distributed a document at the briefing stating that “online consumer privacy legislation must include strong protections against sharing personal information about consumers with the government.”

The industry has made several attempts at self-policing in response to increased pressure from governments in the U.S. and Europe. The most recent example is new downloadable software from the Network Advertising Initiative, which serves as a browser-based hub for consumers to manage and maintain ad network opt-outs.

According to Chester, around 35 people attended yesterday’s briefing, including congressional aides from the offices of Congressmen Bobby Rush, Ed Markey, and Joe Barton. Rush chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, which plans to hold a joint hearing with the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet this Thursday on offline and online consumer data collection. Markey and Barton are members of the committees.

“This is heating up,” said Chester, who expects draft privacy legislation to be submitted by the end of the year.

Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rick Boucher indicated in October that a privacy bill with bipartisan support would be introduced by this month.

Chester suggested that an FTC privacy roundtable set for December 7 is of special importance to the privacy coalition. According to the FTC, the discussion series will “explore the privacy challenges posed by the vast array of 21st century technology and business practices that collect and use consumer data.” Among the topics will be social networking, behavioral advertising, and mobile marketing.

“We’re focused on the hearings the FTC is having,” said Chester.

UPDATE: The story originally incorrectly reported that representatives of Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Lives, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and Privacy Times were present at the briefing, though they were not. The groups are members of the coalition.

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