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California Senate Introduces Internet 'Do Not Track' Bill

The California Senate introduced a bill today that would allow its residents to tell website operators they do not want their online activity monitored.

The Los Angeles Times reports that if passed, the law would put California on the forefront of the internet privacy movement:

Legislation by state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) would create a mechanism to allow users of smartphones, tablets, computers and any other device that accesses the Internet to tell website operators they don't want their online habits monitored.

As California did with do-not-call efforts to block telemarketers, he said, the state should be out front in blocking online tracking. "We will lead and provide stimulus to the rest of the nation," Lowenthal said. "It's much more difficult to get something like this through Washington."

Back in 2010, the Federal Trade Commission discussed a very similar idea. USA Today reported at the time that the FTC was reacting to complaints from consumers, but that opponents of the plan said it would cripple the "burgeoning online advertising industry..."

Since then the FTC hasn't moved forward with any plans. In fact, in a March opinion piece in Advertising Age, FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch said the FTC has not "endorsed" the concept of a do-not-track system and he questioned the technical feasibility of the the idea. Rosch added that while the idea might be popular, it could bring with it some unintended consequences:

To begin with, a consumer may sacrifice being served relevant advertising. On a related note, there is academic research suggesting that in order to compensate for the loss of the ability to track consumer behavior and the associated ability to serve relevant advertising, advertisers may need to turn to advertising that is more "obtrusive" in order to attract consumers' attention.

Consumers may also lose the free content they have taken for granted. Not only could consumers potentially lose access to free content on specific websites, I fear that the aggregate effect of widespread adoption by consumers of overly broad do-not-track mechanisms might be the reduction of free content, free applications and innovation across the entire internet economy.

Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times that the bill would allow the attorney general to issue regulations that require an easy way for consumers to opt out of programs that collect information like addresses and names.

"Nearly 80 percent of Californians use the Internet and nearly 45 percent use Facebook, including myself," Lowenthal told the paper. "But, today, millions of Californians are unaware that their online behavior is being tracked, their data collected and sold to advertisers."

Debate on the California bill is scheduled to begin on April 26.

But the major browsers — Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Google's Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox — have all recently added a feature that can keep sites from tracking you.

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