PBS’s Mediashift is running a series of articles about privacy and kicks it off with an article questioning what the US government will do to protect online users’ privacy:
After years of telling all on the Internet, of tweeting about armpit rashes and tantric sex, we may have gone too far, shared too much. We may have lost control of the information that we reveal about ourselves and of the way others use that information. Which is a bad thing.
That’s the thinking, at least, behind two government reports released at the end of 2010. The first one, produced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), outlines a plan to regulate the “commercial use of consumer data.” The second one, produced by the Commerce Department, recommends that the federal government “articulate certain core privacy principles” for the Internet. Together they show that online privacy is very much on the public agenda.
The FTC report, titled Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change, begins by noting that “consumer information is more important than ever” and that “some companies appear to treat it in an irresponsible or even reckless manner.” It says data about consumer online activity and browsing habits are “collected, analyzed, combined, used, and shared, often instantaneously and invisibly.” […]
It’s a good thing for the FTC to encourage companies to revisit their privacy policies. Most of them are long and dense and monuments to legalese, and some companies seem to notify me every week about changes to their terms and conditions. Nowhere is their ineffectiveness more apparent than in the world of mobile devices, which often spread privacy policies across dozens of screens, 50 words at a time. On the Internet, meanwhile, it would take consumers hundreds of hours [PDF file] to read the privacy policies they typically encounter in one year. That’s hardly helpful to the consumer. […]
The Commerce Department report, very sexily titled Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in the Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework [PDF file], begins by noting that consumer privacy must address “a continuum of risks,” such as minor nuisances and unfair surprises, as well as the disclosure of sensitive information in violation of individual rights. […]
The reaction to the Commerce Department report, like the one to the FTC report, has been mixed. Privacy advocates have been critical of it, especially the sections that support self-regulation, but other groups and government officials have commended the Department for taking on a tough issue. For its part, the Department said it plans to incorporate the feedback into its final report, to be released later this year.
It’s also worth mentioning that in late October, the National Science and Technology Council launched a Subcommittee on Privacy and Internet Policy. Chaired by Cameron Kerry, general counsel of the Commerce Department, and Christopher Schroeder, assistant U.S. attorney general, the subcommittee’s job is to monitor global privacy-policy challenges and to address how to meet those challenges.