Opinion at Huffington Post: Why The FTC’s Online Privacy Plan Won’t Stop The Information Free-For-All
An opinion column at the Huffington Post discusses online privacy and some shortcomings of the Federal Trade Commission recent privacy report (pdf).
The limited scope of the agency’s “do not track” proposal aside, it is heartening to see the government finally setting its sights on the personal information free-for-all online. Just this year, for example, consumers were spooked by a series of privacy debacles that included Google’s admission that it “screwed up” in collecting individuals’ emails via WiFi networks, and the revelation that a Google engineer was fired for snooping on underage teenagers’ messages. In addition to the FTC’s 79-page report on “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change,” the White House announced a new subcommittee focusing on privacy and Internet policy.
But the FTC’s proposed course of action shines a harsh light on what the agency has so far chosen not to do: use its authority to crack down on offenders and develop a more holistic set of guidelines that spell out how our online data — if it does indeed belong to us once we share it with the Web — can and cannot be used. […]
While the “do not track” system would give consumers the option to keep some data from being collected, the FTC’s proposal fails to explicitly spell out guidelines for how companies should handle the vast reserves of personal information we voluntarily hand over. […]
But the thorny issue that the “do not track” system does not address is what we can do to prevent companies from using our data in ways that we might not yet be able to anticipate. Some of the greatest privacy controversies in recent memory have arisen from instances in which websites chose to employ our personal information to offer new, unprecedented services — without asking us.
When Google Buzz launched, for example, many were horrified to find that the social service publicized their most frequent contacts (Google recently settled a class action lawsuit involving Buzz). Facebook’s Open Graph worried numerous others — and set off a Facebook boycott — when users discovered the site would begin publishing their activities on third-party websites. These surprises are not likely to stop: Google CEO Eric Schmidt has asserted Google’s policy is to “get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” […]
As its report attests, the FTC is aware of these broader privacy issues, though it has not yet outlined specific ways these issues might be addressed. The privacy process will take time, notes Christopher Wolf, founder and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, and it will likely be several years, if not longer, before meaningful enforcement is enacted.