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Lawmakers Go To Battle Over Online Privacy

In the wake of the recent online tracking scandals involving Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android smart phone, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, this week became the latest lawmaker to introduce a do-not-track bill [pdf] to allow customers to opt out of having their online habits followed and recorded by web companies.

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Consumer advocates have thrown their support behind the bill. Online marketers? Not so much.

Rockefeller’s Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 will allow companies to collect “only the information that is necessary for the website or online service to function and be effective.”

“Recent reports of privacy invasions have made it imperative that we do more to put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to their personal information,” he said in a statement. “I believe consumers have a right to decide whether their information can be collected and used online. This bill offers a simple, straightforward way for people to stop companies from tracking their movements online.”

Not everyone agrees. Patricio Robles, technology reporter at Econsultancy.com, called both bills “unworkable.” Robles believes that politicians are exaggerating privacy concerns. On Rockefeller’s bill, he says, “The Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 looks to be so vague on certain matters, such as how long information is needed, as to be meaningless.”

A similar bill, the bipartisan Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011 [pdf], was also released last week by Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas. They want to stop companies from using information gathered by children under 18 for marketing purposes, including information on their whereabouts.

In the case of the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, Robles says, “Many companies that collect information about their users don’t even know the ages of their users, so it would be impossible for them to identify who they can track, and who they can’t.”

Representatives for the respective lawmakers were unavailable for comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s message to those who oppose these bills:  you can’t take our cell phones or our locations. “We aren’t giving up our cell phones; I think we all know that,” ACLU privacy lobbyist Christopher Calabrese said Monday. “So we’re going to have to create protections for how that information can be accessed, and in turn, protect ourselves against unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

Both bills (and even the ACLU) all raise an important, if obvious, question: can we realistically expect to use a cell phone and computer without being tracked?

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    • I’m with the ACLU on this one. No company, and no product should automatically collect user data or location without the prior consent of the user. Company’s such as Google does not have the right to send their little cars by our homes and map our locations either. I hope Congress fines Google and Apple billions of dollars and give it to the poor. And from there, fine them a billion bucks for everyone they track without the users direct permission.

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