Tennessee Congresswoman Martha Blackburn says she wants to give consumers control of their internet experience.
She’s introduced a bill – the “BROWSER Act” – that would require internet users to actively opt in to say yes to any sort of ad tracking or online-data collection.
To the online-advertising industry, what Blackburn is proposing could drop a huge hammer on business. And, they say, consumers would be hurt.
“Facebook won’t be free,” said Scott Howe, CEO of the data company Acxiom. Acxiom collects consumer data on millions of Americans – where they live and the kinds of things they shop for – that marketers and media companies use to target consumers and deliver more-relevant ads. So it’s looking out for any legislation in this realm closely.
BROWSER stands for “Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly.” It could become the latest skirmish in a never-ending conflict between privacy advocates and businesses that offer access to their websites at no charge.
The latter are profiting by gathering web users’ data, which they then use to personalize people’s surfing experiences or, more often, for targeted advertising.
BROWSER’s opt-in clause threatens this because it could mean any company that tracks people online – by looking at browsing history, say, or simply where a person is physically located when they’re online – would need to ask permission of those users each and every time it does.
It would hit the online-advertising business hard, executives say, as companies lose the ability to pinpoint advertising to individuals.
The prospect raised alarm among some industry executives. Though others, like Jason Kint, CEO of the web publisher trade group Digital Content Next, see scare tactics at work.
Oh dear God, you’ve outdone yourself GOOG, FB ad tech complex. $340B of advertising will be erased if we can’t track your browsing. Absurd. pic.twitter.com/8AFvRvY8rx
— Jason Kint (@jason_kint) June 6, 2017
Acxiom is working with organizations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Data and Marketing Association to make its case with legislators.
That includes questioning Blackburn’s motives. Sheila Colclasure, Acxiom’s chief privacy officer, said she thinks the bill is a response to backlash Blackburn faced after she voted to kill an Obama administration ruling that would have required telecom companies to seek permission from consumers before sharing web-browsing and identity data with advertisers.
Blackburn’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Since that law was struck down, articles like The Verge’s “The 265 members of Congress who sold you out to ISPs, and how much it cost to buy them” turned up the heat on members of Congress. Blackburn is among a handful who were targeted by billboards calling her out on the vote.
Colclasure says she thinks Blackburn’s bill may serve as something of a makeup call.
Chris Pedigo, senior vice president of government affairs for the media industry trade group Digital Content Next, said Blackburn’s pro-consumer stance is in the right place, but argued for some consideration of businesses’ needs as well.
“Congresswoman Blackburn is rightly trying to address consumer concerns,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to do that in a balanced way. It feels like a lot of industry folks put their heads in the sand.”
Overall the worry among many ad-industry observers is that the act is so sweeping in nature that it could make it difficult for the ad-supported free internet to function.
The Internet Association, whose members include Google, Facebook and Amazon, issued the following statement last month. “This bill has the potential to upend the consumer experience online and stifle innovation.”
This is not the first time Congress has tried to mandate how consumer privacy works on the web.
For example, in 2010 former Reps. Rick Boucher from Virginia and Cliff Stearns of Florida introduced a bill aimed at pushing digital-media companies to disclose more about their data-collection tactics.
That one didn’t pass.