Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Consumer Online Privacy

July 27, 2010

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C—Today, our Committee will examine the issue of consumer privacy in an online world. It is an issue I am deeply interested in, and I know my colleagues – especially Senators Kerry and Pryor – who chair the Subcommittees on Communications and Consumer Protection are, too. I thank them for their work on this issue.

Imagine this scenario: you’re in a shopping mall. And while you’re there, there’s a machine recording every store you enter and every product you look at, and every product you buy. You go into a bookstore. The machine records every book you purchase or peruse. Then, you go to the drugstore. The machine is watching you there, meticulously recording every product you pick up – from the shampoo to the allergy medicine to your personal prescription.

The machine records your every move that day. Then, based on what you look at, where you shop, what you buy – it builds a personality profile on you. It predicts what you may want in the future – and starts sending you coupons. Further, it tells businesses what a good potential client you may be – and shares your personality profile with them.

This sounds fantastic – like something out of science fiction. But this ‘fantastic’ scenario is essentially happening every second of every day, to anyone who uses the Internet. Every time you go online, a computer server tracks the websites you visit. When you send or receive an email, a computer may scan the contents of that email. And when you use a mobile device, a computer often tracks your location.

Moreover, these computer servers – these machines – are storing all of this information about you, and using it to build your personality profile. From this profile, they determine your personal tastes and private characteristics. They inundate you with advertisements based on this information. They can spam and potentially scam you.

So the questions we ask today are:

  • Do consumers know that these online practices go on?
  • Do consumers realize that computers are tracking what streets they walk on and what websites they visit?
  • Do they realize that the information they put on their personal websites is being shared with third parties?
  • And what are consumers getting in exchange for this information-sharing?

We must also ask: if consumers fully understand just what was being collected and shared about them, what could they do to stop it? Can consumers demand the same degree of anonymity on the Internet that they have in a shopping mall?

I want to close by emphasizing an important point. The consumer I am concerned about is not a savvy computer whiz-kid. I am not talking about a lawyer who reads legalese for a living and can delve into the fine print of what privacy protections he or she is getting.

I am talking about ordinary Internet users. I am talking about a 55-year-old coal miner in West Virginia who sends an email to his son in college. I’m talking about a 30-year-old mother who uses her broadband connection to research the best doctor she can take her sick toddler to see. I’m talking about a 65-year-old man who just signed up for a Facebook account so he can view photos of his grandson, and reconnect with old friends. 

We have a duty to ask whether these people – and the millions of Americans just like them – fully understand and appreciate what information is being collected about them, and whether or not they are empowered to stop certain practices from taking place.

We have two terrific panels of witnesses today. I want to thank all of you for agreeing to testify before the full committee. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can better protect consumers in our online world.