Monday, February 27, 2012

Obama Administration's Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

By now most anyone that has come to this blog knows, at least in general terms, what is called behavioral targeting. This massive, growing multi-billion dollar industry is built on the tracking of you on the internet - and EVERYTHING you do on it...and then compiling, storing and selling that data to third party advertisers (while being accessed by government when requested...which we know is a lot)

This rise in behavioral tracking has made it possible for consumer information to be potentially misused, increases the threat of identity theft, and is a fundamental violation of privacy. Often times, such behavioral tracking is particularly targeted at vulnerable consumers for high-price loans, bogus health cures and other potentially harmful products and services. To date, to what extent "Do Not Track" rights exist, it has been a voluntary request from industry - which borders on pointless.

Now to my cautious optimism regarding the Obama Administration's announcement last week that it supported a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The proposal lays out seven principles of privacy protections, including the right to exercise control over the dissemination of one’s data and the right to transparent privacy policies. The bill of rights is not legislation, acting more as a framework and statement of principles, but it does at least sound like the Administration "gets it" in a way we haven't heard before.

Consumers deserve the kinds of broad rights to protect their own information online the President is advocating - particularly that fundamental right to control how how personal data is used and that we deserve the right to avoid having our information collected and used for multiple unknown purposes. We also DESERVE the right to make sure our information is held securely, and not KEPT for long periods of time. And of course, we must have the right to hold those who are handling or misusing their personal data accountable when things go wrong.
To be sure, its an outline, and it still needs to make it through the legislative process (though the administration has threatened to bypass them...which is also a good sign) - meaning a GOP controlled House will have an opportunity to destroy, as it does with all public policy, anything it gets its hands on if it serves the profit motives of big business. 

Clearly, when you talk about companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft...we're talking some big time heavy hitters with LARGE check books and hordes of high priced lobbyists. In other words, the devil will be in the details...and what will matter most might just be whether there are real, enforceable rules that punish these giants for breaking them.

But before I go into more of why tough legislation is needed - and privacy on the web is better protected, let's get to some of the details released.

Companies responsible for the delivery of nearly 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements — ads that appear on a user’s screen based on browsing and buying habits — have agreed to comply when consumers choose to control online tracking, the consortium said on Wednesday.

But even if a click of a mouse or a touch of a button can thwart Internet tracking devices, there is no guarantee that companies won’t still manage to gather data on Web behavior. Compliance is voluntary on the part of consumers, Internet advertisers and commerce sites.

"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,” John M. Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, said in response to the administration’s plan. "A concern is that the administration’s privacy effort is being run out of the Commerce Department.”

It’s critical that government enact strong privacy regulations whose protections will remain with consumers as they interact on their home computer, cell phones, PDAs or even at the store down the street. Clear rules will help consumers understand how their information is used, obtained and tracked,” said Amina Fazlullah of U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “In the event of abuse of consumer information, this legislation could provide consumers a clear pathway for assistance from government agencies or redress in the courts.”


The new privacy outline brings together several efforts to develop and enforce privacy standards that have been progressing for the last couple of years on parallel tracks, under the direction of advertisers, Internet commerce sites and software companies.

The next step will be for the Commerce Department to gather Internet companies and consumer advocates to develop enforceable codes of conduct aligned with a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” released as part of the administration’s plan on Wednesday. The bill of rights sets standards for the use of personal data, including individual control, transparency, security, access, accuracy and accountability. 

I'm a big supporter of limiting commercial tracking of our online activities, not just in the commercial sphere, but protecting it from government that increasingly demands this information from private companies.Similarly, there's a long, clear record that self regulation doesn't work - so creating rules and laws to protect people's privacy on the internet is critical, and now possible.

In principle, the proposal does look what I'll be watching for is just how watered down this legislation becomes over time...and that we don't forget some of the key protections necessary, as recently outlined by a coalition of consumer groups, including: 

· Sensitive information should not be collected or used for behavioral tracking or targeting.
· No behavioral data should be collected or used from anyone under age 18 to the extent that age can be inferred.
· Web sites and ad networks shouldn’t be able to collect or use behavioral data for more than 24 hours without getting the individual’s affirmative consent.
· Behavioral data shouldn’t be used to unfairly discriminate against people or in any way that would affect an individual's credit, education, employment, insurance, or access to government benefits.

This would also include: No sensitive information (like health or financial information) should be used for behavioral tracking, no one under 18 should be behaviorally tracked, Web sites and ad networks shouldn’t be able to keep behavioral data for more than a day without getting an OK from the individual they’re tracking, and behavioral data can’t be used for discriminatory purposes.

Here are a couple responses from privacy advocates to the Administration's proposal worth noting here:

“The devil is going to be in the details,” acknowledges Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “It is a framework that certainly represents a decent start, but the key is going to be in three components,” he says, which include the legislation and regulations that grow out of it, and the enforcement thereof.

On paper, then, it looks fine as a work in progress, though Stephens does acknowledge that at least one provision – the “Respect for Context” clause, which says companies “will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data” – seems somewhat subjective and open for interpretation. As such, consumers concerned about their privacy will have to wait and see how this vague language of the bill of rights will translate into actionable regulation.


Anybody can stand behind some broad principles about respecting privacy rights,” Reitman says. “Whether it’s enforceable is still a far-off issue....even without legislation, the administration will convene multistakeholder processes that use these rights as a template for codes of conduct that are enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission.”

“The way it is right now … it’s historically been self-enforcing,” says Rainey Reitman, activism director for the digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The White House statement today changes that, so it will be under the umbrella of FTC enforcement.”

Ellen Bloom, a senior director of policy for Consumers Union, was at the press conference today in Washington, D.C., where the "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" was unveiled. She said consumers are very concerned about Internet companies passing along their private information to third parties. And she is happy that the administration is taking steps with the "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" to protect consumers. But she said the group will continue to educate and advocate to make sure privacy protections are strong enough to do the job.

"We are glad that the FTC and the advertising industry will breathe new life into the Do Not Track rules," she said. "This is a welcome first step toward providing a single simple tool to opt out of being tracked online. We are encouraged that we're on the right track. But we are not ready to rest."

More Backdrop on Behavioral Tracking
To get an even better understanding of why this matters, and what's happening to you and your information every time you get on the net check out this congressional testimony from a year or two ago from Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy...most of this is from the testimony and the groups press release...and it should clarify some of this obviously complicated issue.

“As with our financial system, privacy and consumer protection regulators have failed to keep abreast of developments in the area they are supposed to oversee,” he explained. “In order to ensure adequate trust in online marketing—an important and growing sector of our economy—Congress must enact sensible policies to protect consumers.”

“Whether using a search engine, watching an online video, creating content on a social network, receiving an email, or playing an interactive video game, we are being digitally shadowed online....Our travels through the digital media are being monitored, and digital dossiers on us are being created—and even bought and sold.” 

Singling out behavioral and “predictive” targeting for their violations of user privacy, Chester noted that the “consumer profiling and targeted advertising take place largely without our knowledge or consent, and affects such sensitive areas as financial transactions and health-related inquiries. Children and youth, among the most active users of the Internet and mobile devices, are especially at risk in this new media-marketing ecosystem.”

“Americans shouldn’t have to trade away their privacy and accept online profiling and tracking as the price they must pay in order to access the Internet and other digital media,” Chester declared, adding that far from being an impediment to continued growth in the online sector, meaningful privacy safeguards will actually stimulate the digital economy.

“The uncertainty over the loss of privacy and other consumer harms will continue to undermine confidence in the online advertising business,” he explained. “That’s why the online ad industry will actually greatly benefit from privacy regulation. Given a new regulatory regime protecting privacy, industry leaders and entrepreneurs will develop new forms of marketing services where data collection and profiling are done in an above-board, consumer-friendly fashion.”

Privacy is a fundamental right in the United States. For four decades, the foundation of U.S. privacy policies has been based on Fair Information Practices: collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification, use limitation, security safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability.

Those principles ensure that individuals are able to control their personal information
, help to protect human dignity, hold accountable organizations that collect personal data, promote good business practices, and limit the risk of identity theft. Developments in the digital age urgently require the application of Fair Information Practices to new business practices. Today, electronic information from consumers is collected, compiled, and sold; all done without reasonable safeguards.

Consumers are increasingly relying on the Internet and other digital services for a wide range of transactions and services, many of which involve their most sensitive affairs, including health, financial, and other personal matters. At the same time many companies are now engaging in behavioral advertising, which involves the surreptitious tracking and targeting of consumers.

Click by click, consumers’ online activities – the searches they make, the Web pages they visit, the content they view, the videos they watch and their other interactions on social networking sites, the content of emails they send and receive, how they spend money online, their physical locations using mobile Web devices, and other data – are logged into an expanding profile and analyzed in order to target them with more "relevant" advertising.

This is different from the "targeting" used in contextual advertising, in which ads are generated by a search that someone is conducting or a page the person is viewing at that moment. Behavioral tracking and targeting can combine a history of online activity across the Web with data derived offline to create even more detailed profiles. The data that is collected through behavioral tracking can, in some cases, reveal the identity of the person, but even when it does not, the tracking of individuals and the trade of personal or behavioral data raise many concerns.

Let's hope this Administration's actions match its words, that industry power won't weaken these principles beyond their usefulness, and of course, let's hope Congress is bypassed, as they serve NO PURPOSE (esp. the House) except to protect corporations and undermine people.

More to come....

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