Protect consumers online

Let’s say you are interested in finding information about a new restaurant you passed in the car this morning, or decide to quickly research ideas for a last-minute summer vacation. If you’re wondering whether the schools are better on the other side of town, you can go online during your lunch break and get reviews within seconds. Almost instinctively now, we turn to the Internet for fast access to all of this information.

But online companies also know that you’re researching new schools and looking at the new restaurant. In fact, they are tracking and collecting massive amounts of information on all of us, every day, without our explicit permission or, all too often, even our awareness.

Using small data files known as cookies, as well as other advanced collection technologies, third-party advertising companies can essentially track your Web browsing activities across the Internet. Cookies are a gateway to virtually every move you make across the World Wide Web.  They use this information to serve users with targeted advertisements based on individual profiles they’ve created using your data. Furthermore, unbeknownst to most people, there’s nothing to stop companies from freely scooping up your personal information.

I believe consumers should better understand, and have control over, how virtually their every move is collected online. Consumers should be the ones deciding whether their personal information is collected and used.

For many years, I have been concerned about companies making huge profits off a system that lacks real transparency or consumer choice. My bill, the Do Not Track Online Act, empowers consumers by giving them the ability to stop the collection of their online data. Despite the hyperbole of the bill’s opponents, my approach won’t harm the online marketplace. Companies will still be able to conduct business online and deliver the content and services that consumers expect and enjoy.

Contrary to what some have said, I do understand why advertisers and marketers continue to argue against stronger online consumer protections. For them, it’s all about the bottom line. While the industry has promised to do better, all we’ve seen is a series of efforts that are confusing and near-impossible for consumers to use — and companies that, quite frankly, aren’t interested in self-regulating. Instead, they’d rather pull the fleece over consumers’ eyes.

Internet users should have the right to choose whether they want to hand over their personal information, ultimately for someone else’s financial gain. They expect that, despite how much of their life is conducted on the Web, personal information is still theirs unless they agree to share it. There have been a lot of false promises from this industry, but no real progress when it comes to establishing a consumer protection program that is strong and effective.

I’ve been told that regulation impedes the ability of markets to function properly, and that companies are policing themselves using voluntary codes of conduct. But this self-regulatory scheme is virtually worthless. The online advertising industry has a program that allows users to opt-out from receiving behavioral advertising, but online advertisers still collect, combine and use their personal information. Though industry claims that their program provides consumers with privacy protections, in reality, it does nothing more than provide consumers with an absurd trade-off.  After all, the only reason why users would want their personal information collected and profiled is to receive personalized content and ads. Thus, it’s nonsensical for online advertisers only to allow consumers to opt-out of receiving targeted ads while still collecting and using their information.

The debate over consumer privacy isn’t about whether  consumers appreciate advertising tailored to their preferences. It’s about whether consumers should have the choice to prevent companies from tracking their every move in the first place. And in this debate, the marketing industry has fallen short in allowing consumers to decide for themselves whether companies can collect and use their online information.

Rockefeller, a former governor of West Virginia, has served that state in the U.S. Senate since 1985. He is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.