When Alan Davidson, Google’s public policy director, began working in Washington 15 years ago there was little threat of Congress regulating the Web. Legislators wanted to watch how the young medium evolved before enacting legislation that could stifle its growth. But times have changed. “Ten years ago the conventional wisdom was you can’t regulate the Internet,” says Davidson. “And now the conventional wisdom is becoming in many countries: you think we can’t regulate the Internet just watch us.”
European Union and U.S. officials are discussing the adoption of stricter privacy rules that would restrict how Web companies collect and store information on user behavior. Recent court rulings in France threaten to limit the way luxury goods can be re-sold online. Meanwhile, Internet providers are advocating that Congress allow them to regulate Internet traffic by slowing down activities that demand large amounts of data transfer.
Google is against much government interference. While Davidson would like the U.S. to open up new airwaves between television stations, known as white spaces, for new methods of Internet access, he mostly wants Washington to stay out of the way. “That is not to say that there shouldn’t be ground rules,” says Davidson. “But we need to use a light touch and tread lightly on the Internet.”
Others disagree. Jeff Chester, executive director of consumer advocacy group The Center for Digital Democracy has long argued that Web companies are taking advantage of a lack of regulation to run rough shod over users privacy rights and child protection rules present in other media.
Chester believes that the US should enact stricter privacy laws governing “behavioral targeting,” the practice of logging Web sites that users visit in order to serve them more personally relevant ads. He also believes that the US should have a greater role in protecting children from heavy handed marketing attempts online. “There have been very public cases of inappropriate use and access to data,” said Chester in an interview earlier this year. “There are no clear rules… so consequently I think there is a growing interest on the part of consumers to know what are the new rules for this new economy.”
So far, US officials have been reluctant to define such rules. Though Congress has held hearings on behavioral targeting, they have yet to enact any legislation. However, just looking into the issues seems to spur Internet companies to self-regulate--at least to a limited extent. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft each announced limits to the length of time they keep user data in order to target ads after regulators became interested.
Davidson wants to ensure that officials continue to promote industry self-regulation over firm laws, and that the U.S. encourages other countries to do the same. Google opened up a larger Washington office earlier this year in part to ensure that Congress gets the message that the Internet should remain largely open and free from firm laws, however Well intended. "It is not obvious that there is a need for global regulation," says Davidson.