SANTA MONICA, CA – The Obama Administration's blueprint to protect online privacy with a "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" unveiled today could provide meaningful protections, Consumer Watchdog said, but warned that the test of its effectiveness will come as the implementation unfolds.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group also voiced a concern that an announced Internet industry commitment to honor "Do Not Track" could be aimed at undercutting an effort by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to create a strict Do Not Track standard.
Consumer Watchdog joined a coalition of consumer and privacy groups in issuing a statement of minimum requirements to ensure the process works fairly and industry lobbyists do not overwhelm consumer interests.
"The report may represent real progress. A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights based on Fair Information Practice Principles is significant," said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project Director. "Enforceable codes of conduct could matter. Baseline privacy legislation could make a difference."
The White House Privacy report envisions a multi-stakeholder process including Internet companies and consumer advocates convened by the Department of Commerce to develop codes of conduct that could be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
"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," said Simpson. "I am skeptical about the 'multi-stakeholder process', but am willing to make a good faith effort to try."
The consumer and privacy groups said that for the multi-stakeholder process to succeed, it must be representative of all stakeholders and must operate under procedures that are fair, transparent, and credible. The signatories of these baseline principles believe the principles will provide the multi-stakeholder process the legitimacy it needs to succeed.
The Privacy Bill of Rights would be based on Fair Information Practice Principles. Internet users should have the right to control personal information about them, the White House said. These rights include the right to control how personal data is used, the right to avoid having information collected in one context and then used for an unrelated purpose, the right to have information held securely, and the right to know who is accountable for the use or misuse of an individual's personal data. The report also calls for baseline privacy legislation.
"A concern is that the Administration's privacy effort is being run out of the Commerce Department. Commerce's job — quite correctly — is to promote the interests of business, not protect consumers," said Simpson. "If nothing else, the report demonstrates the growing concern about online privacy. Perhaps this is one of the few issues this year where bipartisan action will be possible."
Consumer Watchdog welcomed what the Administration called a "down payment" by industry, but questioned exactly what it meant. It could be reason for concern, the group said.
The White House said that in response to calls from the Administration and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), leading Internet companies and online advertising networks are committing to use Do Not Track technology from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in most major web browsers to make it easier for users to control online tracking. Companies that represent the delivery of nearly 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and AOL have made this FTC-enforceable commitment, The White House said.
"The only problem with this, is that the W3C has yet to agree what Do Not Track technical standards and compliance obligations will be," said Simpson. "If the W3C standards are stricter than industry wants, I can't believe they will follow them. I hope not, but this may actually be an effort to undermine the W3C process."
Signatories to the baseline principles include the World Privacy Forum, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Consumers League, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and U.S. PIRG.
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