John Kerry: We Need A Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights

Our guest blogger is Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet

Forgive my frustration, but on the subject of Internet privacy, I feel just a little bit like we’re all starring in a remake of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Every couple of weeks, the press exposes a company doing something with our information we intuitively know is unfair. The next day, politicians send outraged press releases and letters.

But nothing changes.

And we know Americans want change. The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently reported that sixty-eight percent of Americans are not OK with targeted advertising because they don’t want their online activities tracked and analyzed. And they certainly don’t like feeling powerless to control the tracking. Only 38 percent of Internet users say they knew how to limit the information an online company collects on them. I believe those two data points are related and that if we required collectors to give Americans more and easier to use control over their information, they would be less squeamish about its collection and use.

So why is there talk but no legislative action to give Americans control over their own identities?

Because there’s not enough activism.

Politicians will always acknowledge that polls aren’t a great indication of public opinion. Activism is — because activism reflects intensity.


For decades, Americans told pollsters they didn’t want lakes that caught on fire and drinking water that tasted funny.

But Richard Nixon didn’t feel compelled to sign the EPA into existence until millions of people poured into the streets on the First Earth Day and demanded it.

That’s the difference between opinion and activism, ideas vs. intensity.

I can tell you that there are many companies collecting information on you right now lobbying hard against any new law governing what they do. Even more troubling — they believe that you don’t have or should not have any “rights” when it comes to your information. I disagree, and so does this Administration. But we need to start a movement that actually gets us somewhere — resulting in passage of the Kerry-McCain Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights.

The lobbyists fighting us argue that you shouldn’t care if a company knows that you prefer blue shirts to white shirts or that over time, your waist size has grown a couple of inches. But what if a company constructs a specific and personal profile of your elderly parents and they sell that information to someone running a scam targeted senior citizens? Or what if a company determines that you are pregnant by analyzing your purchases and sends advertising for baby products to your home before you have shared that information with your spouse or your children? That’s not just invasive — it’s a little creepy. Should you have choices about the use and distribution of your information? Should the collector have to secure it and delete or stop using it if you ask them to do so? Senator McCain and I believe the answer to both of these questions is yes.


And recently, the Administration issued a call for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, probably the most significant development in this area since the first time the Federal Trade Commission called for a general law of privacy for on-line commerce in 1999.  Most developed economies have law built on the standard that the European Union has established. But I believe we can and should set our own standard — something more flexible and more stakeholder driven, but just as capable of delivering strong privacy protections. We’re not a “cut and paste” country. We lead. It is time that we set an American standard in law for what is fair and unfair in the collection, use, and distribution of our personal information. So where do we go from here?

Well, the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Senator McCain and I introduced in the Congress would ensure that businesses collecting information on consumers secure that information, communicate to consumers that their information is being collected and for what purpose, and allow consumers to decide whether or not they want their information used that way or transferred to anyone else. And when that information is transferred, the Bill requires that the agreed upon treatment of that information travel along with it. Lastly, anyone would have the right to demand a halt to using information about them. Consumers are smart. They will consent to reasonable and useful collection practices, but they should have the right to control their own online identity.  So can we get there?

That’s up to you. It’s up to you to decide whether we finally hold Washington accountable for the job you sent us all here to do — action not words on Internet Privacy — or whether we’re going to keep starring in a remake of “Groundhog Day.”