Privacy Groups Critical Of Commerce Privacy Report

Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Privacy advocates were skeptical of the proposals outlined in a privacy report released by the Commerce Department Wednesday.

    While pleased that the agency is bringing attention to the need to do more to protect consumer privacy online, representatives from five privacy groups said in a conference call that the report’s proposed measures are too focused on industry self regulation. It’s a “Christmas gift to the data collection industry from the Obama administration,” according to John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog.

    The department’s green paper, which solicits comments that will help form the basis of a final Obama administration policy next year on online privacy, called for the development of a “privacy bill of rights” that will focus on implementation of “Fair Information Privacy Principles.” It called for further comment on whether Congress should pass legislation to implement these baseline principles.

    Simpson and other privacy advocates, however, argued that Commerce should embrace legislation setting baseline privacy standards. Susan Grant with the Consumer Federation of America said it appears that the “thrust” of the report continues to focus on industry self regulation. “We’ve tried that and it’s clearly inadequate,” she said. “We need real privacy legislation.”

    The Center for Democracy and Technology called the report a “creative and flexible approach to develop enforceable privacy protections for consumers,” but also said Congress should pass baseline privacy legislation.

    Some of the privacy groups also were critical of the green paper’s call for the creation of a Privacy Policy Office at the Commerce Department. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy argued that an agency that is focused on promoting U.S. business “cannot play the role of an independent, honest broker. … Having the Commerce Department play a role in protecting privacy will enable the data collection foxes to run the consumer privacy henhouse.”

    However, Ohio State University law professor Peter Swire, who served as a privacy adviser to President Bill Clinton, praised the report’s call for a privacy office at Commerce, saying “it makes sense to put commercial privacy policy in the Department of Commerce. It provides a visible point of contact for privacy policy in the Executive Branch.”

    Industry officials offered warmer comments on the report. Mike Zaneis with the Interactive Advertising Bureau called the report, an “important step in a productive inclusive process to bring U.S. privacy practices up to speed.”

    He said it stands in “stark contrast” to a staff privacy report released by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month, which called for the creation of a “do-not-track” mechanism to allow consumers to choose whether to have their Internet activities tracked for advertising purposes.

    Linda Woolley of the Direct Marketing Association also praised the report’s “support” for industry self-regulation. “We agree that the best way to achieve effective privacy protection for consumers is through innovation and flexible industry-driven efforts, which is why we have spent the past year developing just such a program,” she said in a statement.

    Her group has helped organize an industry self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising that calls for using an icon on online ads that will allow consumers to click on it and know what data is being collected and to opt out of having ads targeted to them based on their interests.

    Google praised the report’s recommendations on increasing international cooperation on privacy, on balancing privacy with the need to preserve online innovation and its call to consider an overhaul of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

    “We strongly support the Commerce Department engaging more actively internationally including the creation of a global framework for privacy to better address international data flows,” Google Director of Public Policy Pablo Chavez said in a blog post.

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