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A Times Editorial

Congress should rein in online data brokers

Consumer privacy has been unregulated for too long, leaving Americans at the mercy of a vast industry that collects, stores and sells information on consumer behavior 24/7. For years, public interest groups have been calling for laws and regulations that would give people some control over their personal data, particularly as technology made database aggregation cheap and easy. New rules are essential, but it wasn't until recently that the emphasis seemed to shift from talk to action. The Obama administration is finally flexing some government muscle to help people control what is known about them.

Maybe the change is because of the public uproar over the headlines made by Facebook and Google over their user privacy policies. But anyone who has participated in the digital economy knows that being tracked online for marketing purposes is nothing new. The experience of having an advertisement pop up on a website that corresponds to a prior Web shopping experience is as disconcerting as it is ubiquitous. It's a reminder that everyone's online activities are subject to a huge invisible data collection system designed to sell virtually anything. Data brokers sweep up massive amounts of online information along with offline data. But unlike credit reports, consumers don't have a legal right to see what information data brokers are collecting or to make corrections to inaccuracies.

This would change if Congress enacts the recommendations made in a March privacy report by the Federal Trade Commission that calls on lawmakers to create baseline privacy protections. The agency says consumers need simplified choices and more transparency on the collection and use of their data, a position similar to principles put forth by the White House in its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The FTC wants tougher rules regulating data brokers. It wants consumers to enjoy greater control, and it warns technology and advertising companies that it will act unless businesses voluntarily adopt an easy-to-use "Do Not Track" mechanism that lets consumers opt out of having their online activities monitored.

Above a set baseline, the Obama administration is calling for an industry-adopted code of conduct that can adjust with the advent of new technologies and innovations. A major effort is under way to get stakeholders to commit to a framework of individual privacy rights that companies would abide by, including FTC enforcement. The rules might interfere with the ability of data brokers to indiscriminately use all accessible information on consumers, but the rules also would imbue the Web with a degree of personal data security engendering consumer trust. Now government has to act.

Congress should rein in online data brokers 05/07/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 7, 2012 5:52pm]
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