The three-hour hearing on Online Consumer Privacy has just come to a close, but unfortunately nothing substantive has emerged. Senators asked the two panels questions that were fed to them by their staff, and, when responses came from Google & Facebook that were conciliatory-sounding enough, the Senators refused, or perhaps more likely did not know how, to ask follow-up questions that might have actually taken us somewhere.
At the core of this problem is the fact that the Senators, and of course they can’t be blamed, are not as technologically astute as the internet engineers that sat before them today. And in that sense, the Committee members could not carry a good question to its logical extension. The issue here isn’t that the companies represented today–Google, Facebook, AT&T and Apple–are necessarily all doing evil things that undermine consumer privacy–because they aren’t–but rather that the Senators were unable to take a valuable opportunity to gauge the industry’s mindset and modus operandi such that an ultimate privacy bill is well-informed and mutually beneficial to both consumers as well as companies like Apple.
The Senators all shared the same sentiment–we like our privacy–but for the most part were unable to ask questions that addressed the balancing act between the potential upside of the internet for consumers and the inherent risks involved. So instead, what we got today was one Senator asserting that the companies should pay attention to consumers’ privacy, and the representatives saying that they agreed and were doing the best they could, and then…the Senator moving on to her next pre-written question.
This isn’t a problem that has an easy solution–our Congressmen are incredibly busy and can’t necessarily immerse themselves into all of the issues on their plate (a fact reinforced by the poor Committee attendance during today’s hearing)–but if a sound privacy bill is going to be passed, our representatives on the relevant House and Senate committees will need to know how to distinguish between companies that are crossing the line–such as Google with its Wi-Spying activities–and other companies that really are protecting our privacy. The way it sounded today, it was too easy to believe that all of these companies genuinely had consumer privacy as their first priority.
A humorous episode occured when Chairman Rockefeller had inexplicable difficulty navigating a two-step process on an iPhone that was thoroughly explained by an Apple VP–but on reflection, it serves to illuminate the disconnect between the folks who are setting out to shape the privacy bill and an industry advocating against it