Examining the Obama Administration’s Proposed Privacy Bill of Rights
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
There aren’t many things the world’s three largest web browsers – Microsoft’s Explorer, Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox – can agree on. This week saw the unveiling of one of them.
The Obama administration is putting forward a new set of Internet privacy “principles” that it says balance privacy protection with economic growth. The proposal, dubbed a “Privacy Bill of Rights” by the White House, is earning plaudits from major players in the Internet industry, including Google, Apple and Microsoft, for choosing voluntary guidelines over strict regulation. Not surprisingly, some privacy advocates are less than convinced.
“Privacy and trust online has never been more important to both businesses and consumers as it is now,” said Secretary of Commerce John Bryson at a Thursday news conference. Bryson notes that 2011 online retail sales in the United States alone neared $200 billion – an economic engine the White House is eager to keep revving. To that end, government and industry officials crafted a voluntary set of guidelines which industry leaders like Mozilla and Google say they will agree to follow.
The 60+ page white paper spells out seven principles aimed at protecting web users’ online privacy, starting with the first principle of Individual Control. “Companies should offer consumers clear and simple choices,” reads the White House white paper. “Companies should offer consumers means to withdraw or limit consent that are as accessible and easily used as the methods for granting consent in the first place.”
The other principles are a mix of consumer-oriented, such as “#2 Transparency,” and business-minded, such as “#3 Respect for Context,” meaning that individuals browsing online should be expected to understand that firms such as Google and others make money through targeted online advertising, and the only thing that can generate that is private information.
The proposal is little more than a statement of values. Rather than take a regulatory approach, requiring Congressional action, the White House has created a voluntary framework where individuals take responsibility for safeguarding their privacy while the industry will police itself against infractions. Gene Sperling, director of the White House economic council, calls it a “we can’t wait” approach; that is, waiting for the lengthy, contentious congressional hearings needed to craft regulations. It sounds good on paper, but in practice some worry these principles are unenforceable, precisely because they’re voluntary.
A central initiative of this proposal is what is called a “Do Not Track” or DNT system. In essence, large Internet firms such as Yahoo or Google collect and store a great deal of data on individuals who use its services. That information is used to tailor online ads for specific services or offerings the firms believe consumers will be more likely to click on. And this is all accomplished by placing bits of code – called tracking cookies – on user’s web browsers.
In announcing their support of the proposal, the large Internet firms and the Digital Advertising Alliance, or DAA, say they will soon voluntarily begin offering users a “Do Not Track” option in the form of a button on their browsers or their web pages. Individuals concerned about information being collected on them can simply click the button, and the firms won’t track a user’s browsing history or personal data. Some firms, such as Mozilla, already provide a Do Not Track option; others say they soon will.
“The White House is arguing that commercial and consumer interests are aligned here,” says Justin Bookman, director of Consumer Privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Bookman calls the proposal a positive development, but says privacy rights groups like his argue that to be meaningful, a voluntary framework needs to be backed up by law:
“To the White House’s credit, the new version of the report does call for a law. But they also recognize that 2012 is going to be a difficult year to get anything passed, so they’re going to use the bully pulpit to get industry to come to the table to agree to negotiate binding rules with regulators and consumer groups.”
The White House’s Gene Sperling agrees that laws to ensure privacy are “appropriate, needed and fitting.” But until those laws can be created, the new “Bill of Rights” moves web users closer to the end goal of protecting their privacy.
Critics remain: David Gerwitz, writing for ZDNet this week, calls the proposal more of a public relations ploy than an actual solution:
“I’m far less concerned if Google knows I went to yet another muscle car web site than I am that my doctor’s office insists on keeping copies of my drivers’ license in a manila folder along with an image of my credit card, my social security number, my home address, my various phone numbers, and my health records.”