Rockefeller Remarks on Industry Self-Regulation and Privacy Protections

June 28, 2012

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C.—Two months ago, we held a hearing in this room on the need for Internet privacy protections.  We discussed how Americans are tracked each time they visit a website, watch a video, or make a purchase.  Both the Obama Administration and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) testified that Americans have very few rights to protect their information online.  

I recognize that consumer information is the currency of the web.  Thanks to advertising revenue, much of the rich content of the Internet is available to consumers for free.  I also understand that advertising is more effective and valuable to companies when it is tailored to match consumers’ individual interests and tastes.  But there has to be some balance.  Consumers should have some degree of control over their personal, often sensitive, online information.  

As we heard at our hearing in May, some in the private sector have begun to recognize this need for balance.  Certain online companies have started taking steps to provide consumers with tools to protect their personal information.  However, our witnesses also said that industry has not gone far enough and that federal legislation is needed.  The story we heard this week about Orbitz targeting more expensive hotel rooms to Mac users should remind all of us that companies will always be tempted to misuse the consumer information they collect. 

In conjunction with the White House and FTC reports, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) has announced that its member online companies will stop collecting personal information from those consumers who tell them to stop doing so.  However, DAA also states that companies will still collect information on these very same consumers for “market research” and “product development”.  These exceptions are so broad- they could swallow the rule.  “Market research” and “product development” could encompass almost anything.

Today, I want to hear from our witnesses what consumers should expect when they tell online companies that they do not want their information collected for any purpose other than the functionality of the service.  No one wants to “break the Internet.” But what many of us want is an Internet where consumers have some control over their personal information.

As I stated in our May hearing, I have learned that self-regulation is inherently one-sided, and that the interests of consumers are often sacrificed for the demands of the bottom-line.  Until consumers are adequately protected, I will continue to push for legislation, and hold hearings, to address this imbalance.