Busy Time Ahead For Online Privacy

Next week will be a busy one in Washington for online privacy as at least two bills are expected to be introduced in the House.  Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA, plans to offer Do Not Track legislation and Rep. Bobby Rush, D- Il, is expected to re-introduce his online privacy bill. There’s activity outside Congress as well.

Also in the House, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-FL, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, is expected to offer a privacy bill soon.

Consumer Watchdog, and our friends at Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are among the groups making suggestions to Speier on the Do Not Track Bill. It is narrowly tailored to address tracking issues only, rather than the broader question of online privacy.

In the Senate, Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, soon will offer online privacy legislation and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-AR, is working on Do Not Track legislation.

The idea of a Do Not Track function received a major boost in the fall when the Federal Trade Commission endorsed the idea in its report, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in Era of Rapid Change.”  Comments on the report are due Feb. 18. Consumers are certainly interested in more protection: a Consumer Watchdog poll found that 90% of those polled thought more legal protections for online privacy are important.

In what I’d say is an effort to elbow the FTC aside and assume the lead role on privacy, The Department of Commerce issued its own report, “Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in The Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework.

The business friendly document called for  creation of a privacy office in the Commerce Department — a bad idea — and appeared to assume the view that strong privacy protections will hinder business innovation. The deadline for comments was Jan. 28.  In Consumer Watchdog’s comments, I wrote:

“The fact of the matter is that commerce is enhanced when consumers have confidence in the entity with which they are doing business. Knowing that that their privacy is protected will build such trust and will prove to be a win-win for consumers and businesses alike. What sort of long-lasting business model can be built on surreptitiously spying on customers?”

I concluded:

“While it is commendable that  Commerce has raised the issue of consumers’ online privacy, it’s important to note that the Department – as it should – primarily seeks to promote the interests of business. It is not, nor should it be expected to be, the primary protector of consumers’ interests. Commerce, therefore, must not have the lead role in online privacy. That is a role best left to a new independent Privacy Protection Office and the Federal Trade Commission.”

It’s clear from the business comments on the Commerce report that the online industry is concerned that necessary regulation may come and are doing their utmost to thwart it.

It’s also clear from the action in Congress that online privacy is on the legislative agenda. It could well be that this will be an issue where a bipartisan consensus will emerge and meaningful consumer protections will be enacted.

It’s certain that Google, Facebook and the rest of the online advertising industry will do their utmost to thwart meaningful regulation. Just as certain is that Consumer Watchdog will be there fighting them.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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