Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Obama picks Leibowitz as FTC chairman

AS I discussed last Friday, the Federal Trade Commission finally released it's initial - and long awaited - guidelines designed to ensure the privacy of people whose online information is gathered by marketers. The consensus among consumer and privacy rights groups generally was they simply didn't go far enough and left everything up to voluntary compliance (with the threat of later enforcement).

Before I get to the choice of Liebowitz as the new chairman, which all are in agreement is a critical position for the future of privacy, here's a couple brief passages from the Business Week article detailing the FTC proposal from last week:

Guidelines may be a step in the direction of protecting privacy, but consumer advocacy groups say the government needs to pass legislation that regulates behavioral targeting practices. The FTC "should have told Congress it's time to act and create legislative safeguards," says Jeffrey Chester, founder and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. The CDD and other consumer groups also say the FTC doesn't provide sufficient guidance in areas such as the definition of sensitive data.

The FTC "encourages industry, consumer, and privacy advocates, and other stakeholders to develop more specific standards to address" sensitive data. But, says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, "the industry already has developed [definitions for sensitive data] but they are absolutely inadequate." Protecting health-related information is especially important as the government's proposed stimulus legislation earmarks funds for the management of online health records, Dixon says.

Now, it's up to the Administration of President Barack Obama to appoint a chairman to head the commission, one of the few agencies of its stature that still lacks a head.

Well, now we've got Obama's choice, and the responsibility falls on him to add teeth to these largely toothless guidelines. The apparent good news is Leibowitz has a solid record and is ready to regulate - and was unsatisfied with the "voluntary" approach to corporate compliance taken during the Bush years.

CNET reports:

Liberal groups including the ACLU and U.S. PIRG last year called on the Obama administration to appoint a chairman who would take a more regulatory approach. More recently, many of those same groups criticized the FTC's view that self-regulation of online targeted advertising was sufficient, which Leibowitz also seemed to take issue with.


In November 2007, Leibowitz suggested that Internet companies should take an "opt in" approach to cookies instead of the current "opt out" approach, a requirement that would have roiled the industry. He also suggested the idea of a "Do Not Track" list for Web surfers.

"Leibowitz will help transform what has been a largely anemic regulatory watchdog during the Bush years into an agency that sees its first priority as consumer protection," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a liberal group that advocates for more regulation. "Public interest groups such as mine appreciate that Leibowitz has called for tougher online privacy safeguards, and that his door has always been open."


On the issue of Net neutrality, Leibowitz stood out from his colleagues in June 2007 when the FTC released a report stating no new laws were necessary. Leibowitz issued an opinion saying existing antitrust laws may not have been "adequate to the task" of Internet broadband regulation.

"Will carriers block, slow or interfere with applications?" Leibowitz asked at a public hearing held by the FTC in November 2006. "If so, will consumers be told about this before they sign up? In my mind, failure to disclose these procedures would be...unfair and deceptive."

All in all, this appears to be an excellent selection! I'm especially excited by his support for the concept of opt-in over opt-out when it comes to Internet companies and cookies, as well as his clear and unequivocal support for Net Neutrality. Keeping the Internet free and democratic is one of THE most important telecommunication issues facing our country.

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