Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Landmark "Do Not Track" Legislation Proposed in California

Some real good news to report. Yesterday I was at the state capitol and had the opportunity to attend the press conference announcing a new bill being proposed by State Senator Alan Lowenthal - and sponsored by Consumer Watchdog - that will allow consumers in the state to stop unwanted online tracking.

First, if you want to read a more extensive description of what is called behavioral marketing, as well as the federal legislation being proposed to address it, just read my previous blog (and many others I've done). 

For today's purposes, let's get right back to the good news. The bill, SB 761, would offer consumers a "Do Not Track Me" mechanism, something the bill's sponsor describe as "one of the most powerful tools available to protect consumers' privacy. The mechanism will allow anyone online to send Websites the message that they do not want their online activity monitored.

The bill is the first in California to explicitly provide for a Do Not Track mechanism. It is modeled after a federal Do Not Track bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA - legislation I have lauded and discussed on this blog recently. While the speakers at the press conference expressed optimism the federal legislation will ultimately pass, they said there is no reason to delay protections for citizens of California.

A poll by Consumer Watchdog last summer found that 80% of Americans support a Do Not Track option. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that most Americans are worried about their privacy and security when they use Facebook and Google.

I have talked about this interesting dichotomy a lot. This being the fact that while people see to "care" about privacy on one level, they tend to do very little to actually do so. Which in my mind, makes easy to use, clear options to protect privacy all the more paramount. Once people are given such a choice, not only will more people choose to "not be tracked", I think more people will become more AWARE of just how all pervasive such monitoring of nearly everything we do has become.

As noted in the press release from Consumer Watchdog, there no longer is any anonymity on the Web. The most personal information about people's online habits is collected and eventually bought and sold, often instantaneously and invisibly. Data collection practices have become a business in themselves, driven by profits at consumers' expense. The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted these practices—which included targeting children—in its groundbreaking series "What They Know."

I can vouch, personally, for Senator Lowenthal too. He's been a consumer stalwart in the legislature, even receiving our organizations "consumer hero" award. Here's a few of his comments about the bill and why he's authoring it:

Nearly 80% of Californians use the internet and nearly 45% use Facebook — including myself. But, today millions of Californians are unaware that their online behavior is being tracked; their data collected and sold to advertisers..The type of data that is collected is far reaching. Anywhere from the type of sites a person frequents, to the time of day and the location from where the person is accessing the sites. Most disturbing, however, is that the information that is being shared may include very personal information such as a name, home address, email address, or financial information.

I'd also point you to two more comments regarding this bill that add some more context. 

James P. Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense Media: "In our recent Common Sense survey, 85% of parents said they are more concerned about online privacy than they were five years ago, and 75% of parents said they don’t think social networking sites do a good job of protecting children’s online privacy. It’s important to see California leaders taking a stand to protect online privacy, especially for kids and teens."

Beth Givens, Privacy Rights Clearing House Director:
"A Do Not Track Me mechanism gives consumers a simple way to tell websites not to spy on them and not to collect detailed profiles of their web usage. Consumers should have the right to control how their data is used or whether it is gathered at all."

Also of note, and a smart strategy being utilized by Consumer Watchdog, was their personal letter to Google's new CEO urging the company take the lead by supporting the legislation. Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and John M. Simpson, director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group's Privacy Project, wrote: 

"Eric Schmidt's tenure as CEO was marked by a series of privacy gaffes. We hope yours will begin with a landmark endorsement of a new privacy right for consumers online that shows freedom of information and personal privacy are not incompatible." 

"As you are aware, online commerce relies on consumer trust.  Sadly, much of the current Internet business model is based on invasive and pervasive tracking of consumers' online activities without their knowledge or control. This should not be the business model of a company whose motto is 'Don't Be Evil.' Do Not Track legislation would give consumers meaningful protection and control.  It would build their confidence in the Internet – a win, win situation for business and consumer."

To get a feel for the press coverage of the bill, check out the article in the San Francisco Chronicle today. Here's a few choice clips from the piece...in fact, notice my organization being mentioned (though they got our name slightly wrong) as one of the key supporters:

An array of Internet firms like Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. collect data about users' online behavior to serve up the sort of advertisements they're most likely to click on. The information generally isn't connected to actual names, but the practice has nonetheless grown increasingly controversial, as it's become clear how much data is gathered and how much it reveals.

A number of advocacy groups are backing the bill, including Consumer Watchdog, Privacy Rights Clearing House, Common Sense Media and the California Consumer Federation.


If the bill is approved, all connected devices would be affected, including personal computers, tablets, smart phones and Internet TVs. This would seem to require technical updates to an array of existing gadgets, including millions of Apple Inc. iPhones already in circulation.

Internet browser makers Microsoft and the Mozilla Foundation have already begun to build Do Not Track features into the latest versions of their products, suggesting companies could achieve compliance through software updates. When flipped on, these existing tools simply send a signal to websites when a user first arrives, saying they don't want their activity monitored.

Google, for its part, offers a downloadable extension that blocks the installation of many ad technologies for its Chrome browser. The shortcoming of the browser-based Do Not Track tools, besides not appearing on all devices, is that ad companies don't have any obligation to abide by these stated preferences. A number of marketing companies have begun working with the browser makers on voluntary solutions, but they remain just that.

A growing number of legislators, regulators and consumer advocates argue that individuals should, at least, have the legal right to remove themselves from this tracking if they want to.

Click here to read more.

For my more detailed thoughts on this topic, and why its so important to give people MORE control over their data and their privacy, I would again point you to my previous post, particularly the conclusion.

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