Nation & World

Bill would let consumers opt out of pervasive tracking

Fines also would be levy against companies that continue

Sen. Josh Hawley
Sen. Josh Hawley

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wants to make opting out of online tracking as easy as adding your number to the Do Not Call list.

Hawley will introduce legislation on Tuesday to create a “Do Not Track” program: It would require companies to limit data collection on Americans who check a setting in their web browsers or install a special app on their phones.

It also would impose hefty fines on companies that, after people opt out, continue the controversial but pervasive practice of collecting broad data about consumers’ browsing activity or building highly customized profiles about them.

Such profiles commonly are used to serve targeted advertisements.

Past initiatives to create Do Not Track options have failed to stop companies’ tracking because they were voluntary, Hawley said, promising this bill would have teeth and finally give consumers more control over how business uses their data.

“We’ve tried the voluntary model,” Hawley said. “It’s time to stop this two-step.”

Hawley is pushing for this legislation as he aims to raise awareness on Capitol Hill about the ways companies follow consumers online — sometimes collecting data about consumers even after they think they’ve opted out.

Hawley, a freshman, is making it his mission to fight Big Tech on Capitol Hill, and the fines he’s proposing are the latest signal that Washington, D.C., is seeking tougher penalties against Silicon Valley.

Hawley also thinks a Do Not Track initiative should be part of any federal privacy legislation.

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The senator made waves in Congress on this issue after a fiery exchange Google executive Will DeVries earlier this year, when Hawley slammed the company for collecting location data about Android users even when location history is turned off.

His office said this bill also stems from concerns about Facebook’s practice of collecting data from people online even if they don’t have an account with the service, which is known in the industry as building “shadow profiles.”

Hawley’s bill does not yet have any co-sponsors, but it’s likely an issue that could earn support across the aisle. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., introduced similar legislation in 2011 though the bill languished in Congress.

Hawley said he’s encouraged by the prospects of change as there’s been a significant shift in attitudes toward the tech industry in Washington — and scrutiny of privacy issues in both parties.

“There is a dawning awareness these big tech companies pose a new but unique threat to consumer privacy, free speech and the future of our economy that we’re just beginning to get our hands and our heads around,” he said.

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