Web bugs become subject of scrutiny

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Congress is examining a few new internet privacy issues this year, one of which is that of "Web bug" technology, a way of tracking users. Web bugs are clear gifs-transparent pictures that marketers sometimes put on Web pages without ads to more easily track page usage or returning users.

The Web bug issue has been raised by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a member of an ad hoc Congressional Privacy Caucus formed by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. Sen. Shelby said his caucus expects to hold its own hearings on privacy issues as soon as next week.

Rep. Barton said he is concerned that the Web bugs aren't being properly disclosed to Web viewers.

"I am concerned that somebody who doesn't have your approval can put something in software that allows them to track where you go," he said. "My whole thing is that you should know what you are getting into."

'NOT AS OFFENSIVE'

Rep. Barton said Web sites that use the bugs to track information that isn't personally identifiable are "not as offensive," but also said he believes marketers need to do more to disclose what they're doing. He also labeled as "wrong" some reported attempts by hackers to embed Web bugs in e-mail messages in ways that e-mail gets returned to marketers whenever the message is forwarded.

Overall, indications are that the House will be much more involved in privacy discussions this year than it was last year, resulting in more hearings and possibly more action on issues. Previously, most of the privacy action took place in the Senate.

Part of this new focus is because the new Energy and Commerce Committee has a more narrow jurisdiction and its chairman, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., has said one of its major focuses will be privacy. Recently Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., freshly named to head the House panel's Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee, has planned immediate hearings on privacy issues to educate his new panel.

ENSURING CONSUMERS ARE PROTECTED

"I see the mission of this subcommittee as encouraging and promoting the continued growth of the Internet and e-commerce, yet ensuring that consumers are protected,'' he said in a statement to Advertising Age.

"I am planning on holding a series of hearings focusing on Internet and online privacy. Our initial focus well be identifying the threats to privacy and educating the members of the panel."

Last year, the House passed a bill putting some restrictions on unsolicited e-mail (the bill was reintroduced this month).

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who closed the year saying he would move quickly on privacy this year, has so far been diverted by bigger battles on campaign finance and several other issues. Sen. McCain joined Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., last year to draft legislation that would require marketers to disclose privacy policies and is preparing new legislation

this year. The committee is still expected to hold hearings next month.

While Congress is waiting, privacy advocates are increasing their efforts to have Congress write new privacy standards into law.

Richard Smith, chief technology officer of the Denver-based Privacy Foundation and an expected witness at the Shelby Privacy Caucus hearings, said last week that marketers aren't adequately disclosing their use of Web bugs, leaving consumers to guess whether the bugs are there and what they are being used for.

He warned that new software will more easily disclose the presence of the bugs to consumers and suggested companies avoid problems by using visible graphics and via disclosure.

"Why is the industry so reluctant to talk about them if there is nothing wrong?" he said. "Their reticence gives the impression they have something to hide."

Meanwhile, a group of privacy advocates led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center called on legislators to take a "privacy pledge" to support legislation that would limit "snooping and snitching" by establishing basic federal privacy safeguards, with states allowed to impose higher safeguards.

The pledge would also require independent enforcement and oversight of marketers' privacy statements.

Copyright February 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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