The US government is considering legislation to protect a basic level of online privacy in a move that’s been dubbed a “privacy bill of rights.”
Speaking to the Senate committee that oversees Internet issues, Commerce department official Lawrence Strickling said the White House would support legislation if Congress introduced it. The idea would be to set “baseline consumer data privacy protections”, with the new law filling in the gaps where existing legislation falls short, in many cases because it was drafted before the Internet became so widely used.
Strickling made what looks to be a reference to ongoing debates both about specific issues such as net neutrality, and the process of exactly who has what powers to make rules on such issues. He said legislation was needed “to establish a clearer set of rules for the road for businesses and consumers, while preserving the innovation and free flow of information that are the hallmarks of the Internet.”
Consumer groups welcomed the idea of developing a mandatory code, but said the process needed to be open to widespread input to avoid the risk of the decisions being dominated by the tech industry.
It’s possible that any legislation might overcome the bitter party political differences in the current make-up of Congress. Former Presidential candidates Republican John McCain and Democrat John Kerry are already said to be working on a joint privacy bill.
One of the main issues spurring the wider debate involves websites tracking user activity and then sharing the data with third-parties such as advertisers. The Federal Trade Commission has previously called for browsers to include a “Do Not Track” setting that blocks all such data sharing.
Microsoft initially rejected such a plan as both a blunt instrument and technically limited in that it simply issues a request to sites: enforcing the request would require legal action. Instead Microsoft developed its own system by which Internet Explorer users can put together a custom list of sites (or download automatically updated lists from groups such as privacy campaigners) which would then be physically blocked from tracking and sharing data. Surprisingly Microsoft has now announced that both systems will be available to Internet Explorer 9 users.