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“Do Not Track Me” Gains Traction in Washngton

I’m just back from a sweltering week in Washington, DC, convinced that those of us who care about protecting consumers’ online privacy have reason for optimism. There is growing interest in creating a "Do Not Track Me" list and mechanism to implement it.

Sure, it could be that the 95-degree-plus temperatures coupled with humidity nearly as high fried my brain, but I don’t think so. My analysis is based on meetings with Congressional, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission staff members, as well as others who follow the issue closely.

Congress is clearly beginning to focus on online privacy. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, has been circulating a draft bill for discussion. His colleague, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-IL, has introduced an online privacy bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, just held hearings on the subject. Those sessions seemed to draw more than token attention from members, perhaps because of the Wall Street Journal’s series "What They Know" that has revealed in great detail just how much of our activity on the Web is monitored by online companies like Google.

At that Senate hearing, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz mentioned the possibility of a "Do Not Track" function.

Why I’m encouraged after last week is that the idea — something that would be to analogous the tremendously popular and successful "Do Not Call" list run by the FTC — is more than just talk. There is action. Indeed, one reason I was in Washington was to join representatives of organizations like USPIRG, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Action, to meet with staff members for Sen. Mark Pryor, D-AR. They are gathering information because the senator is considering the possibility of introducing a "Do Not Track Me" bill this fall.

A knowledgeable FTC staff member confirmed that the staff is working on how Do Not Track could be implemented. And a meeting with a key FCC aide left me convinced that the commission is putting new emphasis on consumer privacy. Recall that at the Senate hearing Chairman Jules Genachowski testified that the FCC and the FTC have formed a joint task force to develop "effective and coordinated approaches to protecting online privacy."

With the election rapidly approaching can meaningful comprehensive online privacy legislation be passed before the end of the year?

That’s probably unlikely. But a significant step forward — simple "Do Not Track" legislation — that would authorize the FTC to administer a list and implement the mechanism is completely doable.

"Do Not Call" is tremendously popular. People understand it. It’s the same with "Do Not Track." Our recent national poll shows 80% support.

I think it has a good chance of winning bipartisan support. It will take awhile to get comprehensive privacy legislation through Congress, but based on what I saw and heard in Washington last week the time for "Do Not Track" has come and momentum is growing.

–John M. Simpson
Director, Inside Google Project
Consumer Watchdog

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