04/13/2011 03:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2011

Kerry, McCain, and Your Online Privacy

Senators John Kerry and John McCain have just taken an important, bipartisan leap forward to provide you with better control over the way your information is used online.

By introducing a comprehensive online privacy bill, the two senators have laid out a plan that has the potential to give consumers a clear way to opt out of having their information shared indiscriminately with advertisers or other businesses.

Under their bill, if you don't want your information used or shared online, you will be able to indicate your preferences to websites and advertisers, who would be required by law to respect those choices. This is an important first, and an improvement over current industry self-regulatory efforts, which hinge on companies' voluntary participation.

There are a number of positive provisions in the bill. One of them is the heightened protections it offers for sensitive personal information, such as information related to a medical condition or certain financial information.

The collection, use and dissemination of sensitive consumer data is one of the greatest causes of concern in today's online data tracking environment. Companies can easily access the most intimate details about you and compile them into comprehensive profiles that can then be sold to the highest bidder, without your permission or control. This bill gives some power back to consumers by requiring companies to get your permission before collecting or using this information, with only a few very carefully defined exceptions.

Another plus is that the bill gives both the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general the authority to go after any business that violates the provisions of the new law and allows them to seek civil damages. We believe this sends out a strong signal that bad actors that willfully ignore your privacy preferences will be punished.

While the bill doesn't include everything we'd like, Consumers Union believes that the approach it adopts is balanced and pragmatic, and offers consumers plenty of protections that they don't currently enjoy. We intend to work with Congress, privacy groups, and industry to strengthen the bill by adding a universal do-not-track mechanism that would allow consumers to opt-out one single time from having their information freely shared. And we will encourage the adoption of additional protections for sensitive online users, such as teens.

Consumers Union doesn't see online privacy as a partisan issue. The current bill presents a real opportunity for all parties to come together and set some consistent, consumer-friendly standards for the way personal information is used online. That's why we support it.