The White House is urging Congress to enact a new "privacy bill of rights" that would provide clearer guidelines to online users and businesses about the collecting of personal information over the Internet.
Speaking in Washington yesterday at a special hearing devoted to online consumer privacy, Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling acknowledged that the ability to store information about customers helps make online companies more efficient. But he said that consumers are growing increasingly uneasy about how their personal information is being collected and used.
With the lengthy privacy policies now offered by Web sites proving confusing and ineffective, Strickling said that a new "consumer privacy bill of rights" is needed. Based on responses from consumer groups and industry members to the Commerce Department's Green Paper, which offered a set of initial recommendations, such a bill would aim to protect the privacy of individual consumers without stifling innovation from online companies.
The protections in the bill itself would be legally enforceable, according to Strickling, but still flexible enough to adapt to new technologies. He added that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should be given the authority to enforce that bill and that the White House would work with other countries and trading partners to ensure that the protections would be consistent across different borders.
"Working together with Congress, the FTC, the Executive Office of the President, and other stakeholders, I am confident in our ability to provide consumers with meaningful privacy protections in the Internet economy, backed by effective enforcement, that can adapt to changes in technology, market conditions, and consumer expectations," Strickling said.
Strickling also called for a federal law to alert consumers in the event of a data breach that would expose their personal information. Such a law would be intended to set the same standards across the country, clear up inconsistent state laws, and give state authorities the ability to enforce it.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which held the hearing, also urged Congress to act.
"Congress can no longer sit on the sidelines," Rockefeller said. "There is an online privacy war going on, and without help, consumers will lose. We must act to give Americans the basic online privacy protections they deserve."
Yesterday's hearing was the second in an ongoing series looking at how information is captured and stored by online businesses and advertisers and what Congress can and should do to better protect U.S. Internet users.