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The link between privacy and consumer trust in a data-driven economy is one of the biggest issues facing the business world. How that trust will be maintained in the context of the Internet, and protected by government and industry alike, are questions at the heart of a White House report issued Thursday, outlining a proposal for a new Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. “The report is really emblematic of the broader privacy environment in the United States,” says privacy expert Lisa Sotto, head of the Global Privacy and Data Security Practice at Hunton & Williams in New York. Between the fast pace of changing technology and a patchwork of U.S. privacy regulations, “the law is never fixed in this area.” Many foreign countries also consider the U.S. to be “out of step” with the rest of the world when it comes to consumer privacy regulations, she says, and in that sense, too, the new report marks a “very important step” in formulating a comprehensive framework. The report calls for a combination of self-regulation by industry—to be achieved, in part, through a multi-stakeholder meeting process convened by the Department of Commerce, enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission, and Congressional legislation. “It’s just another gauntlet thrown down before Congress to address this issue,” Sotto says, and without Congress, it will be difficult to get a comprehensive framework in place. The report itself is just that, Sotto says—a report. “There are no compliance obligations created by this document.” However, she notes, “Any company that wants to be involved in shaping privacy policy in this country, for decades to come, needs to be a stakeholder at the table.” That process of forming consensus through multi-stakeholder engagement is one that can work, acording to Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. In tandem with the White House report, the Federal Trade Commission commended voluntary commitments to “Do Not Track” principles espoused by Yahoo, Microsoft, and other members of the Digital Advertising Alliance. “It all rides on the success of industry groups being willing to engage in this process,” says Polonetsky, AOL’s former chief privacy officer and senior vice president for consumer advocacy. Business has a lot to gain by taking part in discussions, says Jim Halpert, a partner in DLA Piper’s communications, e-commerce, and privacy practice in Washington, D.C. “This is a clear statement from the Administration that I think will be embraced by quite a few leading companies,” he says. Some companies are already searching for a workable mid-point between European and U.S. regulations, while others will want to be viewed favorably by consumers and generate good press, he says. The collection of data is nearly ubiquitous across industries, says Sotto. And privacy concerns should be at the fore: “Privacy is a very significant issue today on the regulatory agenda, so companies need to put privacy on the front burner.” See also: “Conflicts Arise When Complying With U.S. and E.U. Laws,” CorpCounsel, February 2012.

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