ANNAPOLIS – Internet retailers nationwide might know you live in the suburbs, have three children and bought two plane tickets online in December.
That’s what Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Carroll, said he hopes to prevent by introducing a bill to create a Maryland Internet Privacy Act in the Maryland Senate Thursday.
But it might prove tricky to regulate Internet commerce in just one state.
People don’t want their shopping habits sold for demographic purposes, and they don’t want to be solicited as a result of the sale of their personal information, said Ferguson. His bill would prevent Internet merchants from disclosing consumers’ personal information for advertising or research without notifying them and giving them a chance to decline.
A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found people’s No. 1 Internet concern is that others will have access to their private information. Two-thirds of the study’s Internet users don’t think Internet companies should be allowed to track their activities.
“Most of my constituents want that information to be kept private,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, a bill co-sponsor.
Ferguson suggested online merchants post a consent box for prospective buyers. That would allow purchasers to decline to allow personal information be collected and sold before submitting credit card information.
“If somebody authorized the Internet merchant to use (information), that would be different,” said Colburn.
Permission boxes, also called opt-in devices, might bring “a screeching halt to web commerce,” said Wayne Crews, director of technology policy for the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Washington.
Privacy concerns can inhibit the free flow of information and ultimately result in higher prices or less-targeted advertising, according to a 1999 Cato paper on online profiling.
Crews cautioned against setting regulations that might backfire in an evolving Internet marketplace.
“Information about consumers. . .is the currency that lets web commerce flow,” Crews said. “The last thing we want to do now is put barriers in the road of Internet commerce.”
Crews recommended worried consumers change the preferences on their Internet browsers to disable cookies, which are hidden electronic trackers, or buy software to monitor the spread of their personal information online.
Both Ferguson and Colburn admit it might be very difficult to enforce a state law regulating the sale of personal information in Internet purchases.
“That could be our biggest obstacle,” said Ferguson.
“I think it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to regulate just within Maryland’s borders,” said Colburn.
Some Internet merchants already have been forced to adapt to people’s fears of privacy loss.
Amazon.com notified its customers in 2000 when it changed its privacy policies, said Crews.
Ferguson said the bill will need fine-tuning because there are so many business, logistical and personal issues that will crop up. It may take three or four years to make the bill tight enough to get passed, he said.
“It’s a good starting point for a debate,” he said. “I don’t think [the bill] is going to go anywhere this year, but it’s sure going to be fun, listening to the debate.”