Businesses ranging from social networking services to little-known data brokers collect all kinds of information about consumers, often without their knowledge or permission. The data includes basic details like what websites people visit, what they purchase online and in retail stores and whom they interact with. The information is most commonly used to help businesses deliver targeted ads, but it can also be amassed into detailed profiles for purchase by anybody, including potential employers.
In Washington, lobbyists from technology, marketing and related industries have effectively put the brakes on privacy protection legislation. Lawmakers have done nothing to advance a consumer privacy bill of rights that President Obama proposed in 2012, which would have allowed consumers to restrict the data collected and required businesses to give individuals access to files about them. And despite the Federal Trade Commission’s support for a “do-not track” option on Internet browsers that could prevent advertisers from monitoring consumers online, it has not been implemented.
This is why more than 10 states have passed more than two dozen state privacy laws just this year, as reported in The Times by Somini Sengupta. Texas passed a bill that would force police to get a warrant to look at emails — a similar federal bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in April but has not come to a vote in the Senate. California made it illegal to publish the nude pictures of someone online without his or her consent. Other states have restricted the use of drones for surveillance.
Industry officials complain that these state efforts are creating a patchwork of rules that will be hard for companies to satisfy, in part because it’s not easy to tailor websites to comply with state-specific rules that might even contradict one another in some cases.
Some of the laws might be hard to carry out, but if that turns out to be the case, the technology and advertising industries have only themselves to blame. By stalling legislation in Congress, they have essentially invited state lawmakers to take up the cause of consumers, who are increasingly worried about privacy. The response of businesses to this trend has been to increase lobbying in state capitols to kill or water down privacy bills.
If these industries are actually interested in uniform rules for the entire country, here is a suggestion: Stop obstructing legislation in Washington, and sit down with lawmakers and consumer advocates to come up with effective federal laws.