Feds Target Computer 'Cookies,' 'Beacons' as Affront to Privacy

On-Line Privacy

The federal government is pushing on several fronts to limit those increasingly powerful tracking bugs -- so-called "cookies" or "beacons" -- that lurk on computers and follow consumers around the Internet.

For all the brutal partisan fighting of recent months, there is a growing consensus in Washington that the web-monitoring cookies installed in people's computers by most commercial websites are a major problem. But to what extent the solution requires new laws and more regulation is an open question.

The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing one possible approach: creating something akin to the "Do Not Call" list for telemarketers that would let consumers choose to forbid companies from spying on their online movements. An FTC official said the agency was looking into "whether it's even doable technologically." That approach would require an act of Congress.

The Commerce Department is preparing to open another front, putting the finishing touches on a government-wide plan that would create a new Privacy Policy Office. As outlined in a speech last month by Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling, the new office would bring Internet companies to the table with government agencies and privacy advocates to develop "voluntary but enforceable codes of conduct."

The White House already has created a new task force – the Subcommittee on Privacy and Internet Policy -- with the stated goal "of fostering consensus in legislative, regulatory, and international Internet policy realms." The group will help implement the Commerce Department's plan that has been in the works for seven months.

But some privacy advocates question whether Commerce is committed to consumer protection.

"Having Commerce involved with the privacy issue is the digital fox running the data collection hen house," said Jeff Chester, CEO of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Commerce is not a pro-consumer agency. It works on behalf of business interests. I have real concerns about the direction Commerce wants to go."

Chester plans to meet soon with the new White House task force to share his view that the Federal Trade Commission should be the lead agency in the online privacy fight.

The Commerce Department would not comment on the report until it is released. But Marc Berejka, a senior policy adviser at the agency, told the New York Times, "In the 1990s the Commerce Department had an extremely prominent role in developing what we think of as Internet policy, and we are reinvigorating that historical role."

Government Plans Protecting Your Online Privacy

And in his recent speech, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Strickling said the Privacy Policy Office at Commerce "would complement, not supplant, the Federal Trade Commission or the other institutions in the federal government."

David C. Vladeck, the Federal Trade Commission's top consumer protection official, said his role would remain important.

"Because we have the franchise on privacy enforcement, we will undoubtedly retain a leading voice on privacy policy," Vladeck said in a prepared statement.

Some of the world's most powerful companies have weighed in to urge the Commerce Department to let them continue regulating themselves.

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