The Obama administration on Wednesday backed Internet privacy legislation at a hearing [materials] before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation [official website]. The hearing followed reports released in December by the US Department of Commerce and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [reports, PDF] petitioning for stronger online privacy protections, while maintaining the innovation of the Internet. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling [official profile] described [Commerce blog] how legislation would "establish a clearer set of rules for the road for businesses and consumers, while preserving the innovation and free flow of information that are hallmarks of the Internet." FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz [official profile] explained how legislation might help to further the agency's efforts at establishing a "Do Not Track" system [press release], describing how consumers could opt out of sharing their private information just once for all Internet based companies. Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) [official profile] expressed [press release] the importance of Congress stepping up to protect consumer information:
I appreciate that we live in a world in which online technology is rapidly evolving. I know some online companies have taken steps to address consumer privacy. And, I appreciate the need to proceed carefully when providing consumer protections that may disrupt the functionality of the Internet. But Congress can no longer sit on the sidelines. There is an online privacy war going on, and without help, consumers will lose. We must act to give Americans the basic online privacy protections they deserve.Last year, US Representatives Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Cliff Stearns (R-FL) [official website] proposed draft legislation [JURIST report] aimed at protecting Internet privacy and regulating how websites track information about visitors and then use that information to target advertising. The bill would have required websites to inform visitors how their information will be collected and used and to allow consumers to opt out. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) [official website] introduced [press release] similar legislation [HR 654 text] last month. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) [official website] also plans on introducing a commercial privacy bill of rights [press release].
Support for legislation to protect online consumer rights comes amid mounting controversy surrounding Internet privacy issues. In November, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [official website] confirmed that it is investigating [JURIST report] Internet search company Google [corporate website; JURIST news archive] to determine if it violated communications laws when its Street View [JURIST news archive] vehicles inadvertently collected private user data, including passwords and URLs, over WiFi networks. At the time, members of Congress indicated that the incident could factor into new Internet privacy legislation. Also in November, the European Commission [official website] recommended stronger Internet privacy laws [JURIST report] after a reviewing its 15 year-old privacy laws. Earlier that week, Google reached a settlement [text, PDF; JURIST report] in a class action lawsuit regarding privacy breaches relating to its Google Buzz social networking program. Under the settlement, Google will place $8.5 million dollars into a common fund to distribute to organizations that provide education regarding Internet privacy. In addition to investigations within the FCC and the FTC, Google has also recently come under investigation for privacy breaches relating to its Street View program in the UK, Canada, Australia, South Korea, and Spain [JURIST reports].