Top senators and members of the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday criticized the current state of Internet privacy regulations and pushed for legislation that would give consumers more control over their personal information online.
"We can't let the status quo stand," said Commerce Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), who plans to introduce a privacy bill of his own.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, noted in a statement that self-regulation by the private sector has been a "failed experiment," allowing users to become increasingly exposed as new, more advanced tools collect ever-more-personal details over the web.
During a Senate hearing on online privacy, Rockefeller described consumers as being at "war" with companies over control of their information and stressed that Congress must intervene to protect their privacy.
"There is an online privacy war going on, and without help, consumers will lose," he said in a statement. "We must act to give Americans the basic online privacy protections they deserve."
The most concrete mechanism for improving privacy safeguards discussed during the hearing was a "do not track" system that would allow users to opt out of receiving targeted advertising based on their browsing history. The FTC previously endorsed such a plan in a privacy report issued in December of last year.
Though Rockefeller and other lawmakers have deemed self-regulation inadequate, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz noted that companies such as Microsoft and Mozilla stepped up their efforts to introduce privacy tools following the committee's hearings last summer.
"We are encouraged by what we are seeing," said Leibowitz. "The pace of moving forward has become far more rapid ... It is promising."
Some are less optimistic. Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, outlined a privacy doomsday scenario that he warned could come to pass if existing online tracking practices are allowed to proceed without regulation.
"If this collection of data is allowed to continue unchecked, then capitalism will build what the government never could -- a complete surveillance state online," Calabrase said in a statement. "Without government intervention, we may soon find the Internet has been transformed from a library and playground to a fishbowl, and that we have unwittingly ceded core values of privacy and autonomy."
Kerry pressed Calabrase on his testimony and suggested that although current practices pose real risks to users' personal information, the outcome presented by Calabrese may overstate the potential danger of Internet tracking.
"That's a far reach," Kerry said. "That's a big statement obviously about potential downsides."
Leibowitz also highlighted that there can be benefits to targeted advertising that uses online tracking to present users with ads that are more relevant to their interests.
"We think most consumers won't mind getting tracked, we just think consumers should have the ability to opt out of that kind of tracking," he said.
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