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Advocacy groups urge congress to enact consumer privacy guarantees

A coalition of 10 consumer privacy organizations called on Congress yesterday to enact legislation to protect consumers in online and mobile channels, bringing consumer data collection under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission.

Participating organizations include the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the World Privacy Forum. In response to what these groups call ?threats from the growing practices of online behavioral tracking and targeting,? these organizations are calling for broad umbrella legislation of online data tracking that would implicitly include mobile but most likely will not address it individually.

?Right now, when we?ve had discussions with staff on the Hill, their approach is medium-non-specific, because they don?t want something to fall through the gaps right now and be treated as less important than another medium,? said Amina Fazlullah of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Washington.

?The government is notorious for missing the boat on convergence and technology changes, and if you try to pigeonhole protections to one type of device or medium the legislation won?t be as powerful,? she said.

?Based on the discussions our coalition has had with the FTC, they have already started focusing on mobile devices.?

Two of the primary proposals on the table that could have wide, sweeping affects  on the mobile marketing ecosystem are to establish a Do-Not-Track registry akin to the Do-Not-Call registry and imposing a 24-hour limit to holding consumer data.

Ms. Fazlullah charges that the rise of behavioral tracking has made it possible for consumer information to be almost invisibly tracked, complied and potentially misused on or offline.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group believes it is critical that government enact strong privacy regulations whose protections will remain with consumers as they interact on their home computer, mobile phones, PDAs or even at the store down the street.

Clear rules will help consumers understand how their information is used, obtained and tracked, according to this organization.

In the event of abuse of consumer information, this legislation could provide consumers a clear pathway for assistance from government agencies or redress in the courts, according to Ms. Fazlullah.

Location is one of the big issues that often comes up when discussing marketing and advertising on mobile devices, according to the coalition.

Developments in the digital age urgently require the application of Fair Information Practices to new business practices, the groups claim.

Today, electronic information from consumers is collected, compiled, and sold, all done without reasonable safeguards, according to the coalition.

Behavioral advertising, where a consumer?s online activity is tracked so that ads can be served based on the user?s behavior, was cited as a particular concern.

These groups believe that tracking people?s every move online is an invasion of privacy and they worry that consumers aren?t aware that they are being tracked, who is tracking them or how the information will be used.

Despite self-regulatory standards published by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Mobile Marketing Association, these advocacy groups charge that often consumers are not asked for their consent and have no meaningful control over the collection and use of their information, often by third parties with which they have no relationships.

Among the main points that the coalition said should be included in consumer privacy legislation:

Sensitive information should not be collected or used for behavioral tracking or targeting.

No behavioral data should be collected or used from anyone under age 18 to the extent that age can be inferred.

Web sites and ad networks shouldn?t be able to collect or use behavioral data for more than 24 hours without getting the individual?s affirmative consent.

Behavioral data shouldn?t be used to unfairly discriminate against people or in any way that would affect an individual's credit, education, employment, insurance or access to government benefits.

The coalition outlined its concerns and recommended principles for consumer information privacy legislation in letters sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, its Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection and Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) has indicated that the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet will consider consumer privacy legislation this fall. Hearings were held this summer.

?The industry claims that if you protect privacy online, then the Internet will have to file bankruptcy or go dark,? said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, Washington.

?Our approach is that you can have a robust ecommerce system and advertising-based online publishing business, but also have effective consumer protection laws in place,? he said. ?We can do both.?

The Center for Digital Democracy and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have been beating this drum for some time, petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to investigate mobile marketing practices (see story).

?It?s understood that mobile is included in the online ecosystem,? Mr. Chester said. ?Protecting privacy on mobile devices should be a top concern of Congress, because it?s going to be an integrated system.

?I?m pleased to say the leading consumer and privacy groupos have come together to provide a set of documents with best practices for the digital era that create a privacy roadmap,? he said.

?We have articulated policies for opt-in, but created flexibility for one-time data collection that?s accountable and transparent.?

The Mobile Marketing Association's take
"The MMA has a longstanding commitment and record of setting forth guidelines and best practices to protect consumer interests," said Mike Wehrs, president/CEO of the MMA, New York.

"We are surprised by the secondary filing by the CDD and renew the invitation to engage in productive dialog on the rules that we have in place, the direction we continue to pursue in self-regulation and any single specific case of abuse,? he said.

"As a representative of the industry, we will remain diligent in embracing innovation and the economic value-add that our members bring to the industry while protecting consumers' best interest."