Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Do Not Track" Legislation Clears Hurdle - Facebook/Google Oppose

As I wrote about last month, State Senator Alan Lowenthal and our friend's at Consumer Watchdog are carrying a bill that would allow California consumers to stop unwanted online tracking. 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 reason I'm going back to the bill today is twofold. One, California’s State Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Tuesday to move it  forward to the Appropriations Committee. And two, two of privacy's greatest enemies - Facebook and Google - have come out guns a blazing against the legislation (surprise!). Now, before I get to the article in Marketwatch about this increased new fire coming the bills way, let me provide some backdrop for those that are unfamiliar with the legislation.

The legislation would be the first in California to explicitly provide for a Do Not Track mechanism, and its modeled after a federal Do Not Track bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Jackie Speier.

Public opinion is clearly on the side of privacy advocates, as 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.

As I also wrote in the previous post on this legislation, "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."

The fact is, there's no longer 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."

A few other factoids to consider before I get to the article, as detailed by Senator Lowenthal: Nearly 80% of Californians use the internet and nearly 45% use Facebook. 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.

As Beth Givens, Privacy Rights Clearing House Director said, "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."

Now let's get to what appears to be a campaign by Google and Facebook to defeat the bill. Marketwatch reports: 

Large Internet firms have generally bristled at the notion of regulating their collection of user data, which helps target online advertising. Companies argue that policing their own, collective privacy policies makes more sense than passing legislation. An Internet privacy bill proposed recently at the federal level does not include a specific Do Not Track provision.


Facebook, Google and other Internet firms have lobbied California lawmakers this year on Sen. Lowenthal’s proposed Do Not Track legislation, according to public filings.

In a letter sent last week to Sen. Lowenthal, Facebook, Google and a number of other firms wrote that his proposed legislation would create unnecessary confusion and would add significant new costs for cash-strapped regulators.

The measure would negatively affect consumers who have come to expect rich content and free services through the Internet, and would make them more vulnerable to security threats,” the companies wrote in the letter, reviewed by MarketWatch.


During the State Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Lowenthal acknowledged the new privacy tools offered by individual firms, but added that “the mechanism is often not simple, or user-friendly.”

Jeff Chester, a privacy advocate and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said that strong Do Not Track legislation has made little progress in Washington, D.C. — making a focus on state bills necessary. “The online ad lobby has convinced Washington that Do Not Track will kill off the Internet economy,” Chester said. “We think there’s a real role now for states to come in, and regulate the profiling going on within their borders.”

Chester said that if California does not ultimately pass Sen. Lowenthal’s Do Not Track bill, he and others may push for a related ballot initiative in the state...Chester said it’s natural that Internet firms, which rely on serving relevant advertising to a growing number of users, would challenge Sen. Lowenthal’s Do Not Track bill, as “they have the most to lose.”

We now have new poster children for the California Do Not Track campaign, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg,” Chester said, in reference to founders of Google and Facebook. 

Click here to read more.

As I have also written before, its not by accident that we are told by the same interests that profit off our information that privacy is dead, and people don't care about it anymore, or that it will "kill business". Well, that's easy to say when you are the ones developing the complicated and difficult to find privacy settings consumers have to deal with - and profiting off our personal information without our consent.

More to the point is the simple, unavoidable point that consumers should have MORE control, not less, over what information of ours is used, shared, and profited off. This bill is one step of many needed to establish certain core, DotRights (see ACLU's Dotrights campaign).

The good news is the 

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