U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA)
U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) REUTERS

The 'Do Not Track' bandwagon has its strongest supporters to date: influential Washington, D.C. lawmakers.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation met recently to address The State of Online Consumer Privacy. The committee's chair, senator John Kerry (D-Mass) said he is drafting a law along with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) that will protect consumers from data mining practices.

These practices are often used by third parties, which then sell a consumer's information to advertisers who use it for ads targeted to people based on online habits. The information is collected on the internet largely via web cookies, which are used on most websites where a user has to fill out any kind of personal information. The cookies are used to remember the data in case a user goes back to that site.

Kerry's legislation is the latest in a line of efforts from lawmakers, government organizations, consumer watchdog organizations and browser companies to thwart this common practice. Over the past few months, Microsoft with its Internet Explorer browser and Mozilla with its Firefox browser, have both introduced 'Do Not Track' functionality. With the backing of Kerry and McCain, 'Do Not Track' functionality could become law.

The purpose of the legislation I will present is not to discourage information sharing, but to encourage it -- but under a common code of conduct that respects the rights of both the people sharing their information and legitimate organizations collecting and using it on fair terms and conditions, Kerry said at the hearings.

Kerry said while data collecting and sharing with advertisers can stimulate the economy, it also leads to unethical information collecting. Once companies collect a person's information, there are no legal restrictions on further distribution other than anything that is self-imposed.

We cannot continue to allow the collector's of people's information to dictate the level of privacy protection Americans get when they engage in commerce. And we cannot continue to let firms provide no protections, provide misleading statements of protection that they can change at will, or send the information along to others without care for where it goes or under what conditions, Kerry said.

The Obama admistration, through assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence E. Strickling, has also thrown its support behind 'Do Not Track as well. Strickling said in written testimony the Obama administration wants congress to enact a 'consumer privacy bill of rights' to provide meaningful privacy protections for consumers in the Internet economy, backed by effective enforcement.

U.S. Senate Commission on Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman and Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (Dem - W. Va) also weighed in on the matter, throwing his support behind legislation.

There is an online privacy war going on, and without help, consumers will lose. We must act to give Americans the basic online privacy protections they deserve, Rockefeller said.

This kind of support is good news for the Federal Trade Commission, which has been pushing for 'Do Not Track' legislation since December. In his testimony, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz praised Microsoft and Mozilla for implementing 'Do Not Track' in their browsers.

Do Not Track is no longer just a concept, it is becoming a reality, Leibowitz said at the hearing. It's encouraging to see companies responding positively to our call for more consumer choice about their online privacy.

The 'Do Not Track' functions added recently by Microsoft and Mozilla are considered 'header based' approaches, which allow users to opt out of online behavioral tracking. However, the FTC would like to see the online privacy efforts go even further. An effective system, the FTC says, would allow consumers to opt out of having their behavior tracked online all together, not just for behavioral advertising.

The FTC recommended universal implementation of 'Do Not Track.' It also would like to see an easy to find opt-out mechanism and said consumers opt out of being tracked for reasons other than commonly accepted uses such as fraud.