Monday, May 18, 2009

Internet Privacy Legislation Coming Soon...

One undeniable truth about the issue of protecting Internet privacy is that public policy continues to lag woefully behind technological innovation on the web, and we are in short supply of smart regulation.

Now, its not that comprehensive privacy legislation has not been tried in the past, because it has, and its failed. There are a lot of reasons for these failures, some of the more obvious nature, like the vast influence and wealth of those interests that oppose such regulations, like the telecommunications industry, be it cable, the telcos, or the Google's of the world.

Another reason that such legislation has been consistently stymied in Congress is the sheer number of Committees it must navigate through just to win a floor vote. Unfortunately for privacy advocates, the reality is that when attempting to regulate the Internet, a host of disparate Committees qualify as "related" enough to require passage through them, from Financial Services to Judiciary, among others.

With that said, the good news is that another major attempt to address this growing disparity between regulatory law and technological innovation is just around the corner. And from first look, it appears it might be a reasonable attempt to finally address what has become one of the holy grail's of the privacy movement: establishing "OPT-IN" as the standard and precedent, rather than this case, this includes how it pertains to behavioral marketing and data collection.

Saul Hansell of the New York Times reports:

But high on his list is a topic that is very much under his discretion: passing a bill to regulate the privacy of Internet users. “Internet users should be able to know what information is collected about them and have the opportunity to opt out,” he said.


But in what could be a big change from current practice, Mr. Boucher wants sites to get explicit permission from users — an “opt in” — if they are going to share information with other companies.


I spoke to Mr. Boucher on the day that Google announced its new plan to track data about customers for advertising. And I asked him about such behavioral targeting, which presents an ad based on what you did on other sites. “That would clearly need an opt in,” he said.

If that’s how a final law is written, it would significantly disrupt a fair number of advertising businesses. And lobbyists for Internet companies and trade groups told me they are preparing to “educate” Mr. Boucher on the benefits of targeted ads.


Of course, there is a very long way to go between a congressman saying he will introduce a bill and the President signing it into law. And other key House and Senate leaders who would be involved in any privacy legislation have yet to articulate clear points of view on the subject. Nor has the Obama administration said anything publicly whether it wants any new privacy laws. But there are certainly signs that the topic is of interest.

The stimulus bill attached tough new privacy controls to the electronic medical records provisions. And Jon Leibowitz, whom the president appointed to head the Federal Trade Commission, is a long-time privacy advocate.

I'm pleased about these developments for a couple of reasons. One, a dialogue and debate of this issue alone is an important step. Two, even if a bill doesn’t make it all the way to the president’s desk, it will no doubt push Internet companies to start taking privacy and the protection of its users data a bit more seriously in hopes of convincing Congress that no such legislation is needed. And three, unlike the past 8 years, we now have a President that I would bet the farm (I have no farm tough) would sign such legislation (in addition to a large Democratic majority that is both more receptive to privacy concerns and most definitely more knowledgeable and versed in Internet related issues than the "flat earthers" of the GOP).

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