This post was written by Adam Snukal and Joseph Rosenbaum.

As previously reported in Legal Bytes, it seems that not everyone is satisfied with the Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising recently promulgated by several leading advertising associations. A group of 10 consumer and privacy advocacy organizations (i.e., Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and The World Privacy Forum called on Congress earlier this week to enact legislation in response to what they feel are genuine threats to privacy arising from online behavioral tracking and targeting.

The guiding principles the coalition wants Congress to follow in its enactment of privacy legislation are substantively contained in the following Fair Information Practices (“FIP”), which the coalition claims has been the foundation of U.S. privacy policies for decades: collection limitations, data quality, purpose specification/communication, use limitation, security safeguards, appropriate openness, individual participation and knowledge rights, accountability, and redress. FIP was coined by a U.S. government advisory committee in 1973 in response to the use of automated data systems that contained information about individuals. The U.S. Privacy Act of 1974 established a code of fair information practices, and the FTC refers to these practices in a report entitled, Privacy Online: Fair Information Practices in the Electronic Marketplace (May 2000).

A sample of the principles contained in the coalition’s Legislative Primer, entitled Online Behavioral Tracking and Targeting Concerns and Solutions, includes:

  • A definition of “sensitive information,” along with guidelines as to the kinds of data that should not be collected or used for behavioral tracking/targeting
  • A prohibition on the collection or use of data from anyone under the age of 18
  • The right of an individual to obtain access to his/her personal or behavioral data
  • Personal and behavioral data collected must be relevant for the purposes for which they are to be used
  • A private right of action given to each individual whose data is collected and tracked, along with liquidated damages and appropriate federal/state regulation and oversight

Given the July release of self-regulatory principles, crafted and widely embraced by the advertising industry, with explicit support for self-regulation from the FTC itself, and three decades of successful self-regulation in the advertising industry (guided by the Council of Better Business Bureaus), it is not clear why a spokesperson for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse would take the position that “The record is clear: self-regulation doesn’t work. It is time for Congress to step in and codify the principles into law.” Or why a spokesperson for Consumer Watchdog commented: “We’ve seen in industry after industry what happens when the fox is left to guard the chicken coop – consumers lose.”

With Congressman Boucher (D-Va.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, indicating that his Subcommittee intends to visit this issue in the fall, it is not clear whether Congress will allow the industry and the FTC an opportunity to give self-regulation time to work, or if a perceived need to “do something” and change the status quo remains. One thing has not changed: the positions of the industry and consumer and privacy advocacy groups.

Legal Bytes will keep you posted on developments in this area as they evolve, but if you need help or want further information, feel free to contact Adam Snukal, me, or any of the Reed Smith attorneys with whom you regularly work.