Rockefeller Remarks on the Need for Privacy Protections

May 9, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Every day, tens of millions of Americans go on-line to search for information, shop, pay their bills, or access a social networking site.  To state the obvious, the Internet has fundamentally transformed every aspect of our lives.  What is less obvious is the level of information that is collected about us each time we visit a website, watch a video, send an email, or make a purchase.

Consumers have had no choice but to place an enormous amount of trust in the on-line world – trust that their information is safe and secure and being used appropriately.  But the incentive to misuse a consumer’s information is great.  A consumer’s personal information is the currency of the web.  The value of this data has created untold riches for those who have successfully harnessed it.

This is not necessarily bad, as it enables an enormous amount of content to be accessed for free and allows companies to offer a number of services for free.  But, unfettered collection of consumers’ on-line data poses significant risks.  Right now, consumers have little or no choice in managing how their on-line information is collected and used.  Whatever limited choices they do have are often too difficult to use and muddled by complicated, wordy privacy policies.

Protecting consumer privacy is critical for all companies – people need to trust the websites that they are visiting.  But, on-line companies are conflicted.  They need to protect consumers’ information, but they also need to be able to monetize their users’ data.  I am afraid that in the hyper competitive on-line marketplace the need to monetize consumers’ data and profits will win out over privacy concerns.

The Administration and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have both recently issued reports on the need for the industry to do more to protect consumers’ data and give consumers control over how their personal information is used.  They have worked to bring about industry consensus on voluntary actions.  The Administration’s, the FTC’s and the industry’s actions are to be commended.  But, I have learned over many years that self-regulation is inherently one-sided and that consumers’ rights always seem to lose out to the industry’s needs.

I believe consumers need strong legal protections.  They need simple and easy to understand rules about how, what, and when their information can be collected and used.  They need easy to understand privacy policies rather than pages of incomprehensible legalese.

We should take up strong consumer-focused privacy legislation this year.  I do not believe that significant consensus exists yet on what legislation should look like.  But, I will continue to work with my colleagues on legislation.

As Chairman of this Committee, I will continue to work with the Administration and FTC to push the industry to develop and adhere to strong consumer privacy protections.  I will continue to hold oversight hearings to make sure that the trust Americans have placed in these companies is respected.