House panel calls for stringent online privacy protections


Lawmakers did not unify behind any particular legislation, but several members said that protecting children online is the most likely area for congressional action.  

Rep. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Nearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-Mass.) called for a privacy bill of rights for children, and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said that protecting children’s privacy should be the starting point for any new regulations. 

“Children, no matter what, are the most vulnerable,” Eshoo said. 

Federal regulators who testified at the hearing agreed that laws protecting children online could be appropriate. “Concerns about children are very real and very serious,” said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Markey asked the witnesses whether they would support allowing parents to prevent companies from tracking the location of their young children. Genachowski emphasized, though, that some parents might want to be able to find out the location of their children during an emergency.

Lawmakers were especially critical of Google, the Internet company once known for its “don't be evil” motto that has raised privacy and antitrust concerns recently.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) questioned whether Google sees people as its customers or its products, since much of its revenue comes from targeted advertisements based on users' online behavior. 

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) bashed Google for not doing enough to protect people’s privacy, in particular with its “Street View” feature that provides street-level images from around the country. 

"It appears to me that Google has adopted a motto of saying one thing in Washington and doing another thing in their business practices," said Barton.

Federal Trade Commissioner Edith Ramirez endorsed a “Do Not Track” policy, which would enable consumers to choose whether to allow companies to collect data about their online searching and browsing history. 

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) argued that targeted advertising can be helpful to consumers by providing them information about relevant products, and that any new “Do Not Track” regulation should take into account its impact on businesses.   

Several lawmakers raised concerns over the security of "cloud computing," in which users store personal data online. Genachowski agreed that data security can be a concern with cloud computing, but emphasized that regulators must be careful not to stifle innovation.   

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), the chairwoman of the subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, said that the hearing would be the first in a series investigating privacy on the Internet. She said that she hopes to hold the next privacy hearing in September.  

“It’s clear to me that personal data truly is the gold rush of our time,” Bono Mack said.