In a bid to give Internet users more control over how their personal information is collected and used, the Obama Administration today released a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.”
The blueprint gives online consumers new technical and legal tools to safeguard their privacy, and calls for “strong enforcement” by the Federal Trade Commission.
Leading Internet companies and online advertising networks also agreed to act on “Do Not Track” technology that will make it easier for users to control how their online moves are monitored, and to opt out of receiving targeted ads. According to the White House, companies including Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have agreed to comply when consumers choose to control online tracking.
Some lawyers are concerned that the new bill of rights may spur lawsuits. “In America’s class action culture, to announce one right is to launch a thousand lawsuits,” said Reed Smith partner Paul Bond via email. “Companies across the country are already defending against scores of privacy-related consumer class actions, often in cases where no consumer has suffered out-of-pocket or reputational harm. This report will be widely cut-and-pasted into the next wave of privacy class action complaints to come.”
According to the White House, basic rights for online consumers include transparency, security, the right to access and correct personal information, and reasonable limits on the personal data companies collect and retain. Also, organizations are expected to collect and use data in ways that are consistent with the context in which it was provided, and consumers have the right to hold companies accountable for following the policies.
The code is short on specifics, but in coming weeks the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will meet with stakeholders to hash out “specific practices or codes of conduct that implement the general principles in the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” according to the White House.
The other prong of the initiative is establishing controls over online tracking. “Consumers will be able to opt out of tracking through either [an] icon on advertisements they see or through their browser settings, and America will move further down the road to protecting consumer privacy,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, according to the text of his remarks delivered at the White House.
“Today, although it is still a work in progress, the ad industry has obtained buy-in from companies that deliver 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements; and, with the Better Business Bureau, it has established a mechanism with teeth to address non-compliance, backed up with FTC enforcement,” he continued. “Said differently, if they don’t enforce it, we will.”
Leibowitz also said that online providers have committed not to release consumers’ browsing data for “sensitive purposes,” such as when employers are making hiring decisions or insurers are determining coverage.
The Obama administration also pledged to work with Congress to develop legislation based on privacy rights – a key step, some say.
“We still need strong privacy legislation to set the ground rules for consumer privacy,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at Consumer Federation of America, in a statement. “This multi-stakeholder process, if designed and operated along the lines of these core principles, can also be helpful by providing guidance to the industry on how to address some of the complex privacy issues that we face.”
Still, other lawyers are skeptical that such legislation will be enacted anytime soon.
“There have been similar privacy initiatives and legislation introduced in the past few years and each has failed to be enacted into law,” said White & Case partner Daren Orzechowski. “While discussing such rights at this time may be of interest for political reasons, it will be interesting to see if meaningful legislation is actually passed.”
He added, “Remember an entire industry, particularly online advertising, developed in an environment created by the government’s election not to aggressively legislate. It would be unfair to completely change the rules and pull the rug out from under such businesses.”
Contact Jenna Greene at email@example.com.