A Republican Senator in the US has revealed that he is planning to introduce legislation which would prevent internet companies from tracking user activity in a move that will be a big boost for privacy advocates in the country.
Senator John Hawley (Missouri) is only a freshman Senator but he has already made a name for himself with his outspoken attacks on big tech companies.
Legislating for a ‘Do Not Track’ list
In a statement released yesterday, he confirmed that he plans to introduce a Do Not Track Bill. This Bill will seek to create what is known as a Do Not Track list which would allow internet users to opt out of allowing tech companies to track their online activity for anything other than necessary data to run their services.
In other words, people will be able to stop companies like Google and Facebook from routinely collecting their data for the purposes of selling to advertisers and profiteering.
This will be similar in practice to the existing federal ‘Do Not Call’ database. This allows users to opt into a registry saying that they do not want to receive telemarketing calls. Companies that make such calls are supposed to strike anyone from this list off their records and, in theory, they shouldn’t receive any more nuisance phone-calls.
In practice, the effectiveness of the ‘Do Not Call’ database has been questioned. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it hasn’t stemmed the flow of nuisance calls that plague many households in the US.
But this hasn’t stopped many privacy advocates calling for the creation of a similar ‘Do Not Track’ database and now Senator Hawley has made the first move to deliver this.
What the bill would mean for tech companies
If the ‘Do Not Track’ database does come into force. Tech companies will not be allowed to track the online activity of anyone who signs up beyond information that is ‘indispensable’ to their service.
Those that are found to be in breach of the law would be fined. The financial punishments would range from $50 per person per day for “negligence” up to as much as $1,000 per person per day for “willful or reckless violations”.
It is not the first time that there have been moves in the US to create a ‘Do Not Track’ database. Back in 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) endorsed a Do Not Track initiative and legislation was put forward.
However, the working group intended to figure out how to implement the plans were unable to reach a consensus and the plans were eventually shelved.
Attempts by Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal to revive the plans failed at Committee Stage in 2015.
However, since these initial plans were first muted, the amount of data that big tech companies collect about individuals has grown considerably and Senator Hawley has decided that the ‘Do Not Track’ database is now long overdue.
“Big tech companies collect incredible amounts of deeply personal, private data from people without giving them the option to meaningfully consent,” Hawley said in his statement.
“They have gotten incredibly rich by employing creepy surveillance tactics on their users,” he continued. “The American people didn’t sign up for this, so I’m introducing this legislation to finally give them control over their personal information online.”
Why it’s the right time for Do Not Track laws
Senator Hawley describes the sheer volume of data big tech companies collect and the methods that they use as “distressing” and clearly feels that something has to be done.
Many ordinary internet users will sympathise with his argument. In the U.S., internet users have almost got used to having their private data exploited by big tech companies. The recent rollback of net neutrality and online privacy laws by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has only served to exacerbate the problem.
But that doesn’t make it ok. The growing interest in online privacy and understanding about its importance has been clearly marked by the big spike in VPN usage across the USA.
Government and regulation have singularly failed to keep pace with the popular desire for greater privacy which is why internet users have had no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
Senator Hawley’s bill would be a significant step in the right direction. It would place control over an individual’s private data firmly in their own hands and reign in the exploitation of this data by unscrupulous big tech companies.
Whether the bill can make it through the USA’s arduous political system and onto the statute books remains to be seen.
But nine years after the idea of a ‘Do Not Track’ list was first muted; few now would convincingly argue that the idea wasn’t both a welcome one and long overdue.