Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., praised some web advertising tracking as helpful, but also said he was concerned that behavioral targeting is like someone following you around from store to store, taking notes on what you do. He said he was especially concerned that a web search for medical terms such as "dementia" and "post-nasal drip," followed by a search for information on a California trip, followed by a search for a rock group, could create a behavioral profile that could follow him for years.
"There are legitimate questions raised about our traveling over the internet and who watches us and how that information gets used," he said. "We need to understand much more about that. I would hope that every consumer, when traveling on the internet, would understand what kind of information trail they leave and who might want to use it."
Service providers absent
Mr. Dorgan said internet service providers had declined to participate in the hearings, and said he expected to hold additional hearings on the privacy issues.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., compared concerns about marketers' behavioral targeting to those about government wiretapping being raised in a debate over a foreign intelligence surveillance act. Mr. Nelson is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which helped craft the FISA bill currently undergoing Senate consideration.
"What I am struck with is that we [have] a similar issue here," he said. "I use the internet to go online to read the newspapers back home. If suddenly the kinds of articles I am reading ... are going to be identified with me so someone can target advertising, I'm going to question the underlying basis of this."
Evolving with respect
He went on: "In our discussion of snooping of terrorists, we carved out an exception that we don't want the government to go and examine what books we are reading at the local library. Well right here, we have the question of whether we are going to allow other people within the private sector examine the same thing and then use it for a commercial advantage."
The question, he said, is how to continue to allow the internet to evolve yet also respect Constitutional and civil rights.
The comments came as senators heard a Federal Trade Commission official suggest that privacy issues could be handled with voluntary self-enforcement if marketers offered clearer disclosures to consumers. But Microsoft, Google and Leslie Harris, president-CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, called for federal privacy legislation.
Is it spying?
The senators also heard NebuAd President-CEO Robert R. Dykes defend his ad-serving company from the attacks of privacy advocates, who are concerned that the company's gathering of web page information at the service-provider level amounted to far more than extensive monitoring -- potentially, to spying. Mr. Dykes said while his company sees every page consumers see, it only tracks "innocuous commercial" information and doesn't keep any records on individual pages or websites seen.
Senators also asked about the impact of Yahoo's deal to have Google provide some of its search ads, a decision that is also the subject of a Senate hearing next week. Microsoft associate general counsel Michael D. Hintze said that in concentrating Google's power over search ads, the deal could reduce incentive for companies to adopt new privacy protections.