US to tighten behavioural advertising regulation
Congress is drafting a bill that will ensure more protection for consumers from marketers that track online habits in order to serve targeted adverts.
There have been major debates in Europe, and especially the UK, about behavioural advertising and how deeply web sites and advertisers should be allowed to mine web surfers' data. But the US has had relatively little debate on the issue, and has allowed companies more freedom to collect and track consumer data.
UK company Phorm, for example, caused significant upset when its technology was due to be launched by internet service providers BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, so much so that the three providers have all now distanced themselves from the system.
UK consumers were generally disturbed by Phorm, which tracks every web page visited by a user by loading a data-tracking file called a cookie on their computer.
In contrast, the US has a behavioural advertising firm called Audience Science which stores IP addresses and does not engage with privacy communities, so is considered more dangerous by rights organisations like Privacy International.
This growth of technologies such as deep packet inspection, which are much more invasive than cookies, has led Congress to reconsider its stance on behavioural advertising, according to Associated Press reports.
US representive Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, wants to ensure that people trust electronic commerce and the internet.
"Our goal is not to hinder online advertising," he is reported to have said.
The US debate is likely to encourage the UK to be more wary of behavioural advertising firms. While consumers and human rights organisations have been concerned about companies like Phorm, the UK Information Commissioner actually cleared the technology.
This prompted Viviane Reding, the European Union's Commissioner for Information Society and Media, to ask the UK to strengthen its laws to ensure that users give their consent before web data is intercepted. Additionally, a series of complaints to the European Commission prompted the EU to start legal proceedings against the UK in April, citing a clause in the Data Protection Act.
"The US has some very serious issues of its own to deal with, but the fact that they realise that their laws need tightening will put pressure on the UK to defend the standards we already have," said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group.
"We are still waiting to hear what the UK will do to answer the EU's complaints about our implementation of European online privacy laws. Consumers need to know that their rights are going to be upheld."