Web privacy has been an important issue since the Internet came into being, but in the past few months the topic has been thrust into the national spotlight. The newfound prominence of web privacy issues has come largely from a bill being drafted by Congressman Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat who heads the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications Technology and the Internet.

The target of the bill is behavioral advertising, a practice used by online advertisers in order to target individuals based on the websites they visit. Advertisers track users’ online habits and then mine that data to serve up information collected on an individual’s web-browsing behavior. This information is then used to select which advertisements to display to that individual.

The problem that Boucher and other lawmakers have with behavioral advertising is that many, if not most, Internet users are completely unaware that their private information is being gathered and used in this way. The bill Boucher is drafting would impose broad rules on websites and advertisers. His goal is to ensure that consumers know what information is being collected about them on the web and how it is being used, and to give them control over the information.

This is a storm that industry insiders have seen coming for some time. In July, the industry released a set of self-regulatory principles in an effort to head off concerns in Congress and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC put out Internet ad guidelines earlier this year.

Boucher’s efforts have encouraged privacy activists. “Consumers have no idea that they are being followed online and that their information is being compiled into invisible digital dossiers,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of ten privacy groups that recently issued recommendations for lawmakers.

Boucher’s bill would not be the first significant online privacy law. In 1986, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which placed privacy obligations on companies and organizations that offer e-mail services. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 requires commercial websites targeted at children under thirteen to obtain parental consent before collecting personally identifiable information.

While Congress has dealt with Internet privacy issues before, this measure would be the first major attempt to regulate online advertising. The key to making the bill a success will be finding a middle ground that both protects the rights of consumers and does not hinder Internet commerce. Preserving the underlying economics of the Internet should be a primary goal for the lawmakers involved in shaping the bill. Advertisers use the Internet to spread product awareness and increase sales, while many websites rely on advertise to keep online content free.

Boucher should also be cautious about hindering the speed and convenience of the Internet by requiring websites to obtain user permission to collect personal information. Such a measure presents the danger of overwhelming consumers with privacy notices.

Thus, while this bill is a step forward for the privacy rights of Internet consumers, it must strike a balance between those rights and the business interests of online advertisers, while at the same time preserving the utility of the Internet.

Jeremy Francis

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3 Responses to Privacy on the Web: Congress Set to Curb Online Behavioral Advertising

  1. Jeff Chester says:

    When financial, health, family and other personal information is collected and used by outsiders without permission–which is the business model developed by the online advertising industry–it places consumers at risk. Increasingly, outside databases are being combined with online data tracking–rolled together in a profile about an individual Internet user. The online ad industry will become even more prosperous as Internet users know that their are reasonable regulations protecting their privacy.

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