WASHINGTON - 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 would also 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 are commonly 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 in an interview. "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 shadowy 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 is seeking tougher penalties against Silicon Valley.
Hawley also thinks a Do Not Track initiative should be part of any federal privacy legislation. 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 says 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. The Obama administration's Federal Trade Commission also supported the creation of a Do Not Track setting - but it ultimately did not result in any requirements.
Hawley thinks that this bill will be able to succeed where the Obama-era initiative fell short. The FTC at the time created a working group to develop a Do Not Track button, but it leaned heavily on the tech industry to come up with the best way to implement Do Not Track. It turned acrimonious as there was infighting within the group about what "tracking" means.
Browser makers like Microsoft and Mozilla have also tried to implement Do Not Track buttons, which notify advertisers and websites that a person does not want to be tracked. But there's currently no way to enforce it, and advertisers can continue to track people even with the setting enabled.
That's why Hawley thinks there needs to be an actual law on the books. His bill would also restrict companies from transferring the data they collect about consumers to other companies if they activate Do Not Track. Companies would also have to let consumers know they have these privacy rights to opt out of such tracking.
If companies knowingly fail to comply with these rules, they could face penalties of up to $1,000 per day per person. But to be sure the fines pack a punch - the minimum fine for violations is not less than $100,000. Even if companies are found not to knowingly break the law, they would face penalties of $50 per day per person for negligence.
To be sure, recent history shows that efforts to get companies to change their behavior are tricky. A model for this legislation - the Do Not Call registry - was created in 2003 to help consumers limit unwanted calls they are receiving from telemarketers. But it has proved ineffective in protecting them from an onslaught of robocalls in recent years.
Hawley says 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.