Rockefeller expands online privacy investigation to popular sites

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) expanded his online privacy investigation Wednesday to include popular websites.

Rockefeller sent letters to 12 websites — including About.com, Self.com, Ehealthforum.com and Finance.youngmoney.com — asking for information about how they collect and share user information with third parties. 

He said he was seeking their help because he is hitting a wall with data brokers who trade in personal information. 

Data brokers “have told the Committee they obtain information from consumer-facing website sources” but “have refused to identify to the Committee specific sources of the consumer information they obtain” or how that information is compiled, Rockefeller wrote.

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Last year, Rockefeller launched an investigation of nine data brokers that collect information about Internet users, assemble profiles of those users and sell those profiles to other businesses. These kinds of practices are often decried by privacy advocates who say users have no way of knowing their personal information is being compiled.

Rockefeller said the probe has already found that data brokers use the information they collect to group Internet users into categories such as “Rural and Barely Making It” or “Ethnic Second-City Strugglers.”

Users should know how their data is going to be used before they share that data, Rockefeller said.

“Whether such characterizations are positive, negative or erroneous, the process of determining these characterizations is not transparency to the consumer and is beyond the consumer’s control," he said.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have also investigated data brokers, and the Federal Trade Commission is expected to release a report on its own investigation into the business practices.