What you don’t know about Web privacy

Everywhere you go on the Internet says something about you and your interests. In fact, someone may be watching. Being able to gain access to this information and harness it to market products and services is a valuable commodity to Internet service providers, search engines and advertisers.

This information can be used to create an online behavioral profile so that targeted ads could be served to you. The scary part is that you may not know that this information is even being collected.

Much of the time, the information that is collected is pretty innocuous. Knowing what baseball team you like, or that you are interested in antique cars, does not give away your identity. In fact, most consumers would prefer ads that interest them. For example, when checking the scores of your favorite team, wouldn’t you want an ad for cheap tickets rather than something unrelated or uninteresting?

However, not all information is created equal, nor do all consumers want any information shared. Health and financial information, for example, on their own may not reveal anything about us. Nevertheless, the compilation and accumulation of information can be harmful, especially in light of the fact that you don’t know that it is occurring.

The best solution to this problem is to empower consumers to make their own privacy decisions. Only the consumer knows how he feels about the information being collected, the parties doing the collecting, and the purpose for which the information will be used. We need to place the control over consumer information with the actual consumer.

The question is: What is the appropriate government involvement? After all, Internet advertising pays for free website services just as advertising pays for free TV programming.

Transparency is needed to provide consumers with the knowledge of how this information is collected and used. This transparency should include robust disclosure and notice outside the privacy policy. Notice and disclosure need to be clear and conspicuous, so the consumer knows that: first, some information is being collected; second, what information is being collected and how it’s being used; and third, how to prevent this information from being collected.

By giving the consumer more robust and transparent information and the opportunity to opt out, we can strike the proper balance between privacy protection and strong Internet commerce.

The Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet has broad jurisdiction over the Internet, and I am the Republican leader on this panel. Throughout my tenure, I have led inquiries into the issue of privacy. I am now transforming those inquiries into legislation to protect consumer privacy.

Working with Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the chairman of the subcommittee, we are looking at data security, spyware protection, and consumer notification with an eye toward developing a standard, a seal of approval, to let consumers know that they are protected while using the Internet. I see the role of Congress as ensuring that consumers have the right information to make the right choices.

There are many considerations, including constitutional, at play here. At what point will companies be able to collect this information and at what point in the process do they have to notify the customer? What redress does the customer have for a breach of his privacy?

Presently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has responsibility for consumer protection, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has responsibility for Internet service providers and Internet companies.  Should there be a new federal agency to cover privacy on the Internet or should we balance it between these two federal agencies?

Recently, the subcommittee held two hearings to explore all these problems and concerns in developing privacy legislation. In addition, I had a bill, H.R. 1263, the Consumer Privacy Protection Act, in the 109th Congress. This bill serves as the basis for the key privacy legislation we are developing.

Our goal is to balance the benefits for the consumer with the legitimate needs of businesses for this information. For in the end, this legislation should be all about protecting the consumer.

Stearns is the ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.