Friday, March 13, 2009

Congress Mulls Greater Web Privacy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday said he is working to develop a bill to impose mandatory guidelines on Internet companies to protect user privacy, because the current voluntary approach is falling short.

Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia that heads the telecommunications subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, described his intent as imposing "mandatory guidelines applicable to all Websites."

Privacy advocates say regulations on big Internet and phone companies are too lax, giving the firms excessive control over consumers' personal information.

"I do believe that there should be a minimum set of statutory requirements that should apply to all behavioral advertising," the congressman said in an interview with Reuters.

He said he is working very closely with Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns and Rep. Joe Barton, ranking Republicans on the subcommittee and full committee, respectively.

"We will be doing this together," he said.

Congress is evidently motivated by Google's announcement of a new plan to target consumers using so-called behavioral advertising, in which a content company, Internet service provider, or intermediary firm tracks an individual's online use over time to target ads. In Google's case, their strategy puts to use the resources from last year's Doubleclick acquisition.

"We believe that ads are a valuable source of information — one that can connect people to the advertisers offering products, services and ideas that interest them," said Susan Wojcicki, VP, product management at Google, in a blog post that broke the news. "By making ads more relevant, and improving the connection between advertisers and our users, we can create more value for everyone. Users get more useful ads, and these more relevant ads generate higher returns for advertisers and publishers."

Boucher said he did not have all the details he needed on the plan. But he said he will judge it based on how prominent the notice of Google's policy is displayed, how concisely it is stated, and how understandable it is to consumers.

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