Lawmakers question data collection at major sites

Two senior U.S. lawmakers say they’re “troubled” by the collection of personal data at many Websites, and they want details on how much data 15 popular sites collect and what the sites do with the data.

Representatives Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, sent a letter Thursday to 15 sites, including ones operated by Microsoft, Yahoo and Comcast. The two lawmakers, both senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in the letter that they were concerned about the data privacy practices outlined in a recent Wall Street Journal series.

The Journal series suggests that “spying on Internet users” is one of the fastest-growing businesses online.

“We are troubled by the findings in this report, which suggest that the price of consumers’ unfettered use of the Internet increasingly is surrender of their personal information, preferences and intimate details to websites, data monitoring companies, marketers and other information gathering firms that seek to track them online and develop digital dossiers for a range of purposes, including marketing,” Markey and Barton wrote. “As Congress prepares to consider comprehensive privacy legislation, we request responses to the questions that follow to better understand your companies’ practices in this area.”

Members of the Energy and Commerce Committee have recently offered two proposals that would establish privacy rules for websites. Committee leaders have said they will try to push through privacy legislation this year.

The letter, sent to MSN.com, AOL.com, Careerbuilder.com, MySpace.com and other sites, asks the sites what consumer information they collect, what third-party partners they have and how the sites use the data. The lawmakers, who serve as co-chairmen of the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, also asked the sites whether they sell the personal data or otherwise monetize it.

The letter asks the websites how much money they make from the sale or other use of personal data. The lawmakers gave the websites a week to respond to their questions.

“This data gathering permits web-based enterprises to develop digital dossiers on consumers for a range of purposes, including highly targeted marketing,” the two lawmakers wrote.

Representatives of Comcast and Yahoo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comments on the letter. Microsoft spokeswoman Christina Pearson said the company “takes seriously our responsibility to protect people’s privacy when they are using Microsoft’s products and services.”

Microsoft looks forward to working with Barton and Markey on privacy issues, she said.

Privacy advocate Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said lawmakers and the public need to better understand online data collection practices.

“Representatives Markey and Barton have long worked together to champion privacy issues, holding top companies accountable,” Chester said. “With the information they gather from the industry, we will soon have a real X-ray of how our information is being stealthily harvested without our consent.”

In July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee hosted a hearing on the Best Practices Act, introduced by Representative Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat. The bill would require websites to get opt-in permission before sharing consumer data with partners.

Rush’s bill would require websites to get customer permission to change the way they use collected personal information. The bill would allow private lawsuits against companies that violate the privacy law, as well as enforcement by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. The legislation would require Web companies collecting personal data to allow consumers to correct that information.

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