Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Web Analytics: Congress Wades into 'Do Not Track' Issue

On Friday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced H.R.654, which is intended "to direct the Federal Trade Commission to prescribe regulations regarding the collection and use of information obtained by tracking the Internet activity of an individual."

Uh oh. The government is here to help you.

Multiple Bills on Deck

Rep. Speier's bill is not alone. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) also introduced H.R.611, which is essentially the same as the "Best Practices" bill he announced last year. There are several differences between the two bills, but according to Joe Mullin at paidcontent.org, a journal on the economics of digital content, the big advantage Speier's bill has over Rush's is her use of the "Do Not Track" phrase, which is catchy, easy to understand and echoes the successful "Do Not Call" list that the Federal Trade Commission set up in 2003.

While there has been concern in other areas that Congressional deadlock could halt various kinds of legislation — such as Net Neutrality — the "Do Not Track" legislation could manage to make it through, Mullin said. First, privacy is one of those issues that everyone can agree on. Second, passing privacy legislation could be an easy win for Congress — and with the deficit, it doesn't have a lot of those that cost relatively little money.

All of this is striking terror into the heartsof the web development community. In fact, in December the House held a hearing examining whether Congress should enact legislation requiring a do-not-track function in Web browsers, which led to some Congressmen expressing concern that such legislation could damage the Internet economy and slow down the economic recovery.

Bill 'Not a Panacea'

Speier's bill doesn't cover everything. For example, tracking would be opt-out — meaning that consumers would need to know about Internet tracking, and know how to stop it — to stop tracking. In addition, it leaves it up to the FTC to decide what constitutes "tracking" and what is simply a necessary Internet function, which makes some online marketers nervous.

Meanwhile, the major browser companies are working on implementing "Do Not Track"features into their products, in response to a report from the FTC in December suggesting that they do so — with varying degrees of success. It remains to be seen whether Congress will decide that the industry can police itself — or needs help.