Since it's inception the Internet has widely been characterized as a kind of Wild West-like environment, a largely unregulated free-for-all with plenty of room to maneuver for those who seek to exploit--and no sheriff. In a break from the trend, the Obama administration apparently has plans to push for a "privacy bill of rights" and Lawrence E. Strickling, an assistant secretary of commerce is expected to voice the call for such legislation today in a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, according to The Wall Street Journal.
It's still unclear exactly what the legislation would hold and what it would mean for big web giants. The Commerce Department issued a report in December calling for increased privacy options to be made available to individuals, and the Journal reports that the administration will probably back a law based on its outline.
Included in that report was the recommendation that companies ask an individual's permission before using their private information for something other than what it was given, and other potential changes include allowing consumers to access information stored on them, as well as giving them choices to ensure that it is securely protected. A few proposals have been circulated on the Hill in recent weeks, but Senators John McCain and John Kerry have been pushing a draft that "broadly tracks" the recommendations of the Commerce Department, according to the Journal.
Darren Hayes at Nieman Watchdog seems a bit skeptical about the potential legislation's ability to have broad protective effects. "It is hard to envision companies like Google and Facebook, who largely depend on monitoring online users and using that information to benefit advertisers, will simply accept a new do-not-track system. I am sure that there will be powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill fighting against this legislation to protect the billions of dollars derived from identifying Internet users and their preferences," he writes.
A partial answer to this can be found in Strickling's suggestions, summarized and reported by National Journal: "legislation should grant the Federal Trade Commission authority to enforce the bill's baseline protections. Legislation also should provide incentives for industry to develop codes of conduct and other innovative solutions aimed at bolstering consumer privacy. Such incentives could include allowing the FTC to grant a safe harbor to companies that implement approved codes of conduct."
Another response to Hayes's concerns might be found in the Wall Street Journal report, which notes that "the makers of the two most-popular Web browsers--Microsoft Corp. and Mozilla Corp.--have said they are incorporating do-not-track features in current or future products." Granted, Microsoft and Mozilla probably aren't even close to Google and Facebook when it comes to relying on online monitoring. It does, though, show that some companies may be willing to work with do-not-track policies.