Obama admin. wants online privacy protections

Zachary Roth
Cameron Kerry
Cameron Kerry

Worried about who's watching you online? So are federal regulators.

The Obama administration wants to beef up efforts to enforce Internet privacy. It's planning to create a new online privacy czar, and to push for strong new laws, reports the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the effort, the White House has created a special new task force, which will take recommendations on the issue from a forthcoming Commerce Department report and turn them into policy. The group will be led by Cameron Kerry (pictured here), a Commerce Department lawyer and the brother of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, and Christopher Schroeder, an official with the Justice Department.

The government has until now been hesitant to impose regulations on the Internet, fearing that such measures might inadvertently stymie innovation. But in recent years an increasing amount of personal information has begun to appear online, prompting policy hands to reconsider the idea.

GOP Texas Rep. Joe Barton, a privacy champion who's in line to take over next year as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the Journal: "I am glad more and more folks, in the government and otherwise, are beginning to realize that there is a war against privacy."

Observers say the new framework will address, among other things, the lack of any comprehensive U.S. law protecting online privacy. Because of this gap, other countries have typically stoked privacy crackdowns against giant digital concerns such as Facebook and Google.

In addition, a Federal Trade Commission report, expected by the end of the year, will likely call for the online industry to create a "do-not-track" list, which, in the vein of telemarketing "do not call" lists, will allow people to opt out from monitoring at the hands of online marketers and other firms collecting personal data.

Last month, Commerce Department official Lawrence Strickling argued in a speech that it's crucial to strengthen online privacy in order to retain Internet users' trust. "It's difficult for consumers to act in their own interest if the law doesn't meet their basic expectations," Strickling said.

Not surprisingly, the online ad industry, which currently buys and sells consumer data with few restrictions, bristles at the idea of increased regulation. "We believe we are living up to consumer-privacy expectations and are very advanced in privacy protections and innovation," said a spokesman for the Interactive Advertising Bureau.