Privacy Advocates Want Strong Role in Crafting Industry Codes

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Privacy advocates indicated Thursday that they expect to have a key role in helping to implement the Obama administration’s “privacy bill of rights” released on Thursday.

    The administration’s privacy policy, included in a Commerce Department report, calls on Congress to pass legislation that details how personal data should be handled and protected. The report also calls on Congress to give the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general specific authority to enforce the privacy bill of rights.

    With Congress unlikely to pass privacy legislation this year, the administration also is pushing an effort to develop voluntary industry codes of conduct. Companies that sign on will be subject to FTC enforcement.

    “What we like about this approach is it gives us more speed and flexibility than traditional regulatory processes,” Commerce Secretary John Bryson said Thursday at the White House release of the privacy report.

    While praising the initiatives in the report as a good step forward, privacy advocates released their own set of principles on Thursday that

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    they say should guide the development of the industry codes of

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    conduct. They include ensuring that consumer groups play a role in developing the codes, that the process be open and transparent, and that all stakeholders have an opportunity to offer ideas.

    The document was signed by nearly a dozen consumer groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the World Privacy Forum.

    “The real question is how much influence companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook will have in their inevitable attempt to water down the rules that are implemented and render them essentially meaningless. I am skeptical about the ‘multi-stakeholder process’, but am willing to make a good faith effort to try,” John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said in a statement.

    Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union, is more optimistic. She said at the White House event that the country is “on the right track” in improving privacy protections for its citizens with the proposals offered by the administration.

    The United States currently lacks a broad consumer privacy law, instead relying on a mix of industry self-regulation and sector-specific privacy laws related to health and finance.

    “If people don’t trust that their personal information will be handled with care and respect, they will be reluctant to sign up for new services,” Bloom said.

    Intel is among the few tech firms to endorse privacy legislation. “It is necessary individuals have trust in being able to create, process, and share all types of data, including data that may be quite sensitive, such as health and financial information,” David Hoffman, Intel’s director of security policy and global privacy officer, said in a blog post Thursday.

    “The Administration’s paper rightly recognizes that this innovation will only be possible if policymakers create a legislative framework to ensure this trust.”

    Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade is expected to hold a hearing on the privacy report next month. “While I look forward to working with President Obama and Secretary Bryson on this critically important issue, any rush to judgment could have a chilling effect on our economy and potentially damage, if not cripple, online innovation,” subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., said in a statement.

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