The Obama Administration is backing a new data privacy bill of rights aimed at protecting consumers against indiscriminate online tracking and data collection by advertisers.
In testimony prepared for the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary, Lawrence Strickling, said that the White House wants Congress to enact legislation offering "baseline consumer data privacy protections".
Such a bill is needed to protect personal data in situations not covered under current law, Strickling said, adding that any legislation should be based on a set of fair information practice principles and give the US Federal Trade Commission enforcement authority. He also called for incentives to encourage the development of codes of conduct on privacy matters.
Strickling said the administration's call for new online privacy protections stems from recommendations made by the Commerce Department in a paper released in December. Many of those in the industry who weighed in on the idea at the time backed the creation of a new online consumer privacy law, he said.
The document was based on a comprehensive review of existing privacy protections and of ongoing data collection, consumer tracking and profiling practices online.
The administration's support for privacy protections is very significant, said Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School who specialises in privacy issues. "This is the first time since 1974 that the US government has supported mandatory general privacy rules," Reidenberg explained.
The US Data Privacy Act, passed in 1974, is a broad privacy rule originally meant to cover both the private sector and federal agencies. But it was tweaked at the last moment to apply only to government agencies, Reidenberg said.
The administration's support is being driven by heightened concerns about rampant and uncontrolled online data collection practices now prevalent, he said. The fears "have finally coalesced into a significant enough concern among the public that the administration is responding. I think there is recognition that data has been such a fuel for economic activity but in a one-sided way".
All too often in recent years consumers have been unaware of how their information was being collected and used, he said. Some high-profile examples include Facebook's personal data collection practices and Google's problems over its Street View Wi-Fi snooping issue .
"If Congress acts, I believe it will be a major advance for Americans' privacy," he said.
Erica Newland, a policy analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Technology, today said that the White House's support for a new privacy bill will help its passage in Congress.
"This is incredibly significant that the White House has backed comprehensive privacy legislation," Newland said. The support signals the importance of the issue, she said. The fact that the Commerce Department is solidly behind the bill is also noteworthy because it highlights the broad industry support that appears to exist for a privacy bill.
Any privacy law would need to be based on broadly accepted fair information practice principles, she said. The focus needs to be on data minimisation, as well as notice and choice for consumers, with any new law remaining flexible enough to accommodate change, she added.